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

17 April 2018

Editing, TV Style


Please make sure to scroll to the end (but I know you will ’cause you’ll have read the whole piece by Larry 😊), to see my announcement about SleuthSayers, the Derringers and other awards.
My pal Lawrence Maddox's background is in editing for various television shows, including Santa Clarita Diet, Raising Hope, and many more. His crime fiction has appeared in the anthologies 44 Caliber Funk and Orange County Noir. Larry scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick Raw Target and the indie musical Open House. His debut novella Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey) debuted last month. 

I thought it might be interesting to see how Larry applied his visual editing background to his prose writing. So take it away, Larry:

***

“They want to publish Fast Bang Booze, but you’ll have to turn it into a novella. That’s twenty-five thousand words,” Gary Phillips said. “And they want it in the next couple weeks,” he added dubiously.

This was a great opportunity for me, but I wondered if I could cut my novel nearly in half without turning it into something I wouldn’t be proud of. At the time I was also working substantial hours editing a TV show, not to mention raising a family. Time would be tight. If I had any chance at coming out on top of this, I knew I ‘d have to fall back on a set of skills I’d been honing for years—maybe I could apply my skills as a television editor to the editing of my novel..

As a network TV editor, I’m tasked with building an episode scene-by-scene, following the script as I pick the angles and performances that best tell the story. I’ve worked in just about every genre, but my bread-and-butter are half hour single-camera comedies. They’re the hardest. They don’t just tell a story, they also tickle the funny bone (or try to). My shows (single-camera comedies) don’t have laugh tracks that tell you when the show is funny. I’m happy about that, too. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on multi-camera shows (I’m currently introducing my eight-year old to The Munsters—she loves it), and many of them still shine, decades later. But as I got older, I found that laugh tracks seemed 1984-ish, especially when the writing was clearly mediocre. It’s like Big Brother is telling you, “Everyone else thinks this crap is funny, why aren’t you laughing too?” Single camera comedies don’t have the crutch of the laugh track.

The shows I edit are like carefully constructed mini-movies with three acts and multiple jokes per page. There are no pauses for live audience laughter. You know it’s funny because you’re not searching for your remote control in that pesky crevice in the couch. And humor moves. Pace is king and that’s something I definitely applied to my novella: pace—keep it moving.

While the show is being shot, usually over the course of five days, I’m putting it together. It’s like assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle where every piece talks and reacts and forgets what their lines are. I’m not supposed to cut any dialogue when I’m doing the initial edit of the show, called the Editor’s Cut. I’m often dying to, but I get why I can’t. Those words represent big bucks, as well as hard fought battles in the writer’s room. Showrunners (writers usually) who are the main creative forces behind TV shows—don’t even like director’s taking dialogue out when it’s their turn to take a whack at their episode. When directors do their pass through the show after I turn over my cut, they inevitably turn to me in the edit room and ask, “Is the showrunner okay if I chop out dialogue to help get my episode to time?” I will usually respond, “Sure, if you don’t mind not getting hired back.” Then we carry on as if the conversation never happened, all dialogue left untouched, the auteur theory a burning, distant ember.  In TV, the writer is king and queen. Directors are hired guns who need to tread carefully where all things script-related are concerned or they could end up being “one-and-done.”

When the director leaves after their DGA-enforced two days with the editor are over, the showrunner finishes up with their own notes, as well as with notes from the studio and the network. If they don’t like what the director did in the editing room, they’ll often use the Editor’s Cut as their basis.  Now is the time when the elephant in the room takes a seat on the couch behind the Avid (the prevalent non-linear editing system used in TV and film), and begins to tap his Rolex. It’s get-the-show-to-time time. I should mention that many cable and streaming shows are a lot more loosey goosey with running times. While cutting Santa Clarita Diet, getting episodes to time is rarely an issue. I get to concentrate on the fun stuff, like the lovely and talented Drew Barrymore eating people.

Getting a show to time is the Jason Voorhees of network postproduction, the looming obstacle that faces every editor, over and over again. For a half-hour single camera comedy, “getting to time” means making sure an episode comes in at twenty-one and a half minutes. This timing differs from network to network, but not by much. The pilot I’m currently editing can’t come in over twenty-one minutes and twenty-two seconds. Episodes can come in a little shorter, but not a frame over. Remember at the beginning I told you that I start this process by building an episode scene by scene, closely following the script? What if that script is, say, thirty-two pages? At the minute-per-page standard calculation, we’re talking a thirty-two minute first cut. That’s ten whopping minutes—one third of the show—that needs to come out. That’s not editing, that’s liposuction.  And I don’t have all day. At this stage, they’ve already started filming my next episode. That means I’m back in dailies (shot footage), starting the process all over again. I’m finishing one episode and starting another. I have to act quickly.

My showrunner will come up with many of the trims, but they’re even busier than I am. They have to monitor what’s happening on set and in the writer’s room. Egos have to be massaged. Often, showrunners depend on the editor to come up with ways to take the time out of the episode without hurting it. So, when I’m in this position with my own fiction I ask myself the exact same questions I do when taking the excess baggage out of the shows I’m editing. Is this redundant? Do I have to keep this character beat or is this ground covered elsewhere? Have I over-stayed my welcome in this scene? TV editing has taught me the joys of being callous and bloodthirsty. Ruthlessness is called for. Babies are going to be killed. The editing room floor will be awash in punch lines and exposition, as will the outtakes in my novel, hopefully more of the latter than the former.

The through-line of the episode’s A-story should remain unscathed, which is also how I approach my prose. In TV editing I’ve had to be adept at juggling all the story lines as the episode shrinks. Many a B-story has been the victim of a subplot-ectomy in the service of getting an episode to time. When I did my Novella pass through Fast Bang Booze, I lost an entire B story (actually, it was more like a D-story) and no one was the wiser. It made the main story even stronger.

A pilot is the first episode in a proposed TV series. If the pilot doesn’t go well, the series is scrapped and the pilot never sees the light of day. The scripts for pilots inevitably come in over thirty pages, and cutting them down to time are high-pressure situations. The big fear is losing elements about the main character(s) that everyone loves. I’ve learned that this stage is an opportunity to refine the characters and make sure they are consistent. The pilot for Suburgatory had a lot of first person narration. As we whittled it down, the narration was re-written and improved until it was sharp as a one frame splice. Less really was more.

I have to see the big picture and also travel through an episode line by line. Every word is scrutinized in dialogue, and much of it is boiled down editorially to the bare bones. Excess verbiage is jettisoned, word-by-word, until the dialogue flies. I do this when I’m editing my own work. And when I’m done, the leanest, meanest version of the episode is infinitely better than its former self.

So when Gary threw down the novel-to-novella gauntlet, I didn’t freak out. I put on my edit room goggles and did what I do. Except this time, I was ruthless and mean for me, not for a network.  And it worked. I was amazed with how well it worked.

I should add that the original publisher I was writing for went belly up, but Eric Campbell and Ron Phillips of Down and Out Books and Shotgun Honey snatched up Fast Bang Booze, and it debuted March 23rd. If you’d like to see my criminal take on my under-the-gun profession, check out my story “Smotherage,” an extra bonus found at the back of my novella that details the pressure cooker world of editing TV pilots, and “Hot Moviola,” in the anthology 44 Caliber Funk (Moonstone), is about an editor caught in a world of intrigue in 1974 LA.

Keep on cutting!

***

Thanks for stopping by, Larry. Good luck with the book! And you can find Larry’s book here: Down & Out Books and Amazon.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

SleuthSayers Cleans Up:

Derringer Nominations have come out: (https://shortmystery.blogspot.com/2018/04/2018-derringer-award-finalists.html ). I want to congratulate all the finalists, including SleuthSayers’ own Elizabeth Zelvin "Flash Point,” from A Twist of Noir (March 20, 2017) and Robert Lopresti, “The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan," from Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, editor: Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press (October 2017).

My story “Windward” is also nominated in the novelette category, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books (January 2017).

But the truly mind-blowing thing is that 4 stories from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea have been nominated: Mine, Andy McAleer’s, Matt Coyle’s and Robert Randisi’s. I’m truly amazed and honored for such a great showing from a terrific book. And many thanks to the Short Mystery Fiction Society:

Available at Amazon and Down & Out Books

And another SleuthSayers’ story, Art Taylor’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha. SleuthSayer John Floyd’s “Gun Work” and my story “Windward” have been chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mysteries of 2018 by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler. – And I want to thank all of the authors who contributed stories to Coast to Coast. – So, like I said, mind blowing. And I’m thrilled to be part of it on various levels.

***

My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:


Check out my website: www.PaulDMarks.com

07 April 2018

Options and Preferences



by John M. Floyd



Some quick background, here: Two weeks ago today, my wife and I drove down to Gulfport, Mississippi, where I'd been invited to speak to a meeting of the Gulf Coast Writers Association. The crowd included folks who'd written novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry, and songs (one of the attendees, Patti Ryan, wrote "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places"), and more than an hour of our allotted time was spent, as I'd hoped it would be, in a question/answer session. It was a gracious and enthusiastic group, and I had a great time. Afterward Carolyn and I looked for seafood in all the right places and then headed back home.

Why tell you about all that? Well, some of the things we talked about in the Q&A that day made me start thinking about certain issues that always seem to come up when writers get together. Here are half a dozen of those:


1. Question: Should I outline, or not?

Answer: Do whichever makes you comfortable. Outlining (a.k.a. in-depth pre-thinking) can provide a structure and a sense of security that can be helpful and time-saving when the actual writing starts--even if the writer chooses later to change direction. On the other hand, some writers feel that planning too many things out beforehand would stifle their creativity and make the process boring. To me, outlining or not is like squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube or from the top, or always being early for meetings or always being late, or unrolling the toilet paper from over or from under. I think it all depends on the way our minds are wired.

My preference: Outlining.


2. Question: Should I self-publish or seek a traditional publisher?

Answer: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Self-publishing allows the writer to keep everything he/she earns from the sale of his stories/novels, but it also means handling and financing all aspects of the project: cover design, layout, production, marketing, publicity, distribution, storage, and a dozen other tasks. Taking the traditional approach means the writer earns a much smaller piece of the pie, but is responsible only for the writing (and, to a smaller degree, marketing and promoting). Self-pubbing can also allow the author to publish sooner, and on his/her own schedule.

My preference: The traditional route.


3. Question: Should I use first-person POV or third?

Answer: It depends on the story. First person is a more intimate but also a more limited viewpoint; the writer can get "closer" to the reader (I did this, I did that) but a story told in first person can't reveal anything to the reader that the POV character doesn't see or otherwise experience firsthand. Third person creates more distance between the writer and reader, but it's less restrictive. If the story or novel needs a large scope, third person can allow the reader to know things that the character(s) don't, which can help generate suspense. I've heard that whodunits are usually told in first person because the hero (detective?) needs to find things out at the same time the reader does, while thrillers are usually third person because the reader sometimes needs to know things before the hero does (Don't go around that corner; they're waiting for you there!).

My preference: Third person. But I like both.


4. Question: Should I use past tense or present?

Answer: Again, there's no right or wrong answer. Suit yourself. Past tense is the traditional, safe, once-upon-a-time way to tell a story, while present tense can create a sense of immediacy (it's happening NOW) that some writers feel is more interesting. It seems that female writers and literary fiction tend to use present tense more than male writers and genre fiction, but I could be wrong about that. I've also heard that present tense can be distracting and false-sounding to some readers, although it doesn't bother me. I think I've gotten used to it.

My preference (for my own stories): Past tense.


5. Question: Should I submit my work simultaneously or one-at-a-time?

Answer: How cautious are you? Simultaneous subs, especially of short stories, can be a little risky. If it backfires, and two markets want the same story, that can damage a relationship with an editor or publisher--especially if the guidelines say "no simultaneous submissions." On the other hand, submitting simultaneously can certainly help you get published sooner, considering the extremely long response times of some publications. Editors would obviously rather have an exclusive look at your submission. This can be a tough decision for the writer.

My preference: One-at-a-time.


6. Question: Should I edit as I go, or finish my draft and then edit?

Answer: There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. If you do edit as you go, and try to make every page as perfect as it can be before you go on to the next, you might not have to do much rewriting later--but you run the risk of having to do double work if your story takes a different direction and forces you to go back and change things you've already polished. Also, if you choose to wait until you finish a rough draft before going back and editing, that can give you a real sense of satisfaction--Hey, I've already got the story down on paper!--but you'll then of course have a LOT of editing to do. I sometimes think outliners are more apt to go ahead and finish the draft first before editing anything, and that pantsers are more likely to edit as they go. But I could be wrong about that (I'm wrong about many things).

My preference: Write the draft in one swoop (whether it's 100 words or 10,000 words), and only then worry about editing.

One question that never seems to come up is this: Should I write a literary story or a genre story? I think the reason it's rarely discussed is that most writers know already which kind of fiction they want to write, because they know what kind of fiction they most enjoy reading. I'm just odd enough to have done some of both, but (because mystery is my first love) I've written a lot more genre stories than literary. Also, as one genre writer said, I'm not smart enough to write a story that's hard to read.


What are your takes, on these issues? Are you an outliner? Do you prefer self-publishing over the hassle of finding a good "business partner"? Do you prefer past tense or present? First-person or third? Do you send your work out to more than one market at the same time? Do you edit as you go? What are some of the other do-or-don't-do questions you get asked, at signings or speaking events?

Vive la difference.



14 December 2017

How Not to Collect and Edit an Anthology


by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I related the story of how an anthology which never got off the ground helped launch my fiction writing career. Since my initial foray into Anthology World I have gone on from my role of "contributor" to that of "collector/editor."

Twice.

Although both projects involved the experience of collecting and editing the content for an anthology of short pieces, the two experiences could not have been more different. And not just because one anthology was nonfiction in nature and the other involved crime fiction.

In this week's entry, I'm going to deal with the first anthology, the one which taught me several valuable lessons about what not to do when editing an anthology.

My initial crack at editing an anthology came about in large part because of my day gig (I'm a teacher). This was also the case with the first book, I published, 101 Things You Didn't Know About Lincoln. In the case of the Lincoln book, I earned my MA partially in 19th century American history, and knew a fair bit about Lincoln. I'd networked with the acquisitions editor (we're both crime fiction writers), and she knew I was a trained historian. So she approached me about writing that book.

It turned out to be a terrific first experience, so when she approached me the following year about collecting and editing an anthology of "uplifting true stories about inspiring teachers," I thought, "What the heck?" The money was good, and I negotiated a healthy lead-time on the project in order to help ensure I'd have plenty of time to see the project through to completion.

It didn't turn out that way.

I beat the bushes looking for teachers/former students with great stories to tell, posted calls to submit all over the web. And I got a pretty fair number of responses.

What I hadn't taken into consideration was the fact that most of these people were not, in the strictest sense, writers.

There were several natural-born storytellers in the lot. Their work I barely touched. In a couple of cases I accepted the story as was. No suggested edits. Both of those writers were a pleasure to read from start to finish and are still friends to this day.

Then there were the rest of them.

I spent months going back and forth with several members of the original group of contributors whose work I'd agreed to publish. Some of them just couldn't polish their story enough to make the final cut. (And not for lack of trying!).

Part of the problem was that although I served as the collection editor, I didn't have final approval on the content. That lay with the editorial team at my publisher. I would accept changes to several of the stories in need of rewriting, and pass them along to my publisher's editorial team, only to receive them back with requests for more changes.

On top of that, I was also tasked with handling all contractual correspondence with contributors. This was before the days of e-signatures. I had to print up each individual contract, get it sent out in duplicate, ride herd on some of the contributors who were tardy getting their contracts back to me, all while teaching a full load, working on the anthology, and doing research for a different writing project I had negotiated with a different editor (same publisher), to commence just as soon as I wrapped up the anthology.

It...just..seemed...to...drag...on....

In fact there's one guy who sent back his signed contract copies, but who never got paid by the publisher because he moved without leaving a forwarding address. And then he never responded to any of the many follow-up emails I sent to him after his check and contributor's copies of the anthology came back to the publisher marked "Return to Sender."

when I eventually sent off the final draft of all thirty-three entries and had them all individually accepted by the publisher, I was pretty gassed. And not for nothing, but I was also a solid month behind on my next writing project.

And that second editor? Neither as professional nor as easy to work with as my friend who steered me toward writing the Lincoln book. Turned out I'd been spoiled in my initial foray into writing nonfiction for fun and profit.

The result? I wound  up writing eighty thousand words in eight weeks on a ridiculously tight deadline on that next project. And I did it during the months of September and October: the first two months of the school year. Not exactly a couple of months when teachers have a whole lot of extra time on their hands.

But hey, I got paid, and this was before I met my wife/got married/bought a house/had a kid, so it was more instructive than traumatic (at least in the long-term. Short-term? Well...).

Let me begin to wrap this object lesson up by pointing out that this all took place back in 2007. I like to think that I've put all of the following to good use in the years since.

So What did I learn?

1. That soliciting writing from amateurs opens you up to a whole lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

2. That collecting and editing an anthology is a shit-ton of work, and if you're going to undertake it, you should make damned sure that it's on a subject near and dear to your heart, and that you've got something close to final approval on what the content looks like.

3. That creative control is worth taking less money for.

4. Don't work with a publisher who makes you do all of the contract wrangling in an age before DocuSign.

5. That part and parcel of being a good editor is being a good listener.

And on that note Happy Holidays to all who celebrate them. See you in two weeks when I'll talk about at least one time when I definitely put these lessons to good use: when collecting and editing West Coast Crime Wave a few years later, in 2011!

18 July 2017

Bestseller Metrics with Editor & Author Elaine Ash


Today I’d like to welcome Elaine Ash, editor, writer and friend. Elaine was born and grew up in eastern Canada, but calls L.A. home these days. Under the pen name “Anonymous-9,” Elaine’s crime fiction is included in numerous “Best of” lists every year. Anonymous-9 was invented as a blind for her hard-hitting, experimental short stories. Her work has been praised by T. Jefferson Parker, Ray Garton, Johnny Shaw, Douglas Lindsay, Josh Stallings, Robert Randisi and many others.

But Elaine also edits fiction writers, from established authors to emerging talent. As the former editor-at-large for Beat to a Pulp webzine, Elaine worked directly with writers of all genres to develop stories for publication. Some of those writers went on to fame and fortune such as recent Edgar nominee Patti Abbott (Polis), Jay Stringer (Thomas and Mercer), Chris F. Holm (Mulholland), S.W Lauden (Rare Bird), Kieran Shea (Titan), Hilary Davidson (Macmillan) Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur, Delacorte) and many more.

Today, she works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals. She also ghostwrites and edits for industry clients.

Elaine has a new book out called BESTSELLER METRICS. It’s a different approach to writing novels so I thought it might be of interest to people here and I asked her some questions about it:



Paul: What made you decide to write Bestseller Metrics?

Elaine: I saw that if writers could get novel structure right before hiring an editor, everybody would win. Well-structured stories attract bigger agents and land better publishing deals. That might sound like a sales pitch, but it’s the truth. 


How did you develop it and how did you figure out what it takes to have Bestseller Metrics?

I developed it over years of editing novel manuscripts. In my view, people who give hard-earned money for an editor’s opinion deserve proof that the changes will move them closer to publication. I had metrics in my head for many years before I wrote them down. The key here (that you may not know about) is based on my personality type. The Myers-Briggs personality scale reveals that I’m an INTJ, “Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging personality. There are 16 types and INTJ females make up 0.8% of the population. Males make up 2% of the population (https://www.16personalities.com). We are called “The Architects” and our brains never stop categorizing and creating systems out of information. For kicks. Really. Don’t I sound like a fun date? A colleague of yours and mine, the indubitable Dana King says I “put into words what’s been sitting in plain sight.” Metrics patterns have been showing up in books for a hundred years at least. Nobody was oddball enough to document them in terms of novel structure until I came along. 


I understand that you’ve trademarked your plan, what is so different about it that it deserves a trademark?

The system has registered patent pending status from the US Patent Office, which is different than a trademark. That may be changing, however, after my conversation with Dr. Gregory Benford, a physicist and professor at UC Irvine, also a Nebula Award winner for his science fiction. He told me about a genetics testing company that operated under trade-secret law. It’s nothing strange or new—the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe is a trade secret. So I came up with a plan. I’ve released the initial part of the system to the general public in the book, while other parts are being developed as publishing industry software that will operate as a business trade secret. It sounds great, but as Dr. Bentham said as he walked away from me, “Just remember, every mook with a gat thinks he’s a tough guy.” So we’ll see if the plan actually works in the real world. 


What one thing holds back most unpublished manuscripts?

Structure. There so little information for aspiring authors. For decades, I’ve seen manuscripts with sparkling prose, 3-D characters and great premise ideas fail solely on structure. It’s not because writers don’t want to learn—they’re paying for books, classes, conferences and workshops. They’re breaking their fingernails to get it right. But structure is rarely taught, or it’s taught in a way that is not accessible to large numbers of learners. My greatest wish is that educators will pick up this book and start teaching it. On my to-do list is to create teacher-support materials for use in classrooms. I’ll work with any teacher who contacts me.




You talk about “Imaginary Memory.” What is that and how does it affect writers and their writing.

The Imaginary Memory tricks a writer into thinking details are on the page that aren’t really there, or are only partly there. As an author reads his or her own writing, a parade of stored memories and images flood the mind, filling in missing plot points and smoothing over missing descriptions. A cold reader can tell something’s missing immediately, but the writer feels like everything’s complete. Imaginary Memory is a trickster. That’s why a writer can be convinced they’ve just turned in a tremendously vivid piece of work to a writers’ group, and reaction falls flat. I invented tests to help short-circuit IM and give the writer clear indicators of what’s missing.


How is Bestseller Metrics different from the average how-to book on writing fiction?

It’s a window on the creation of novels. It offers a series of tests for writers of every genre to find how close they are to the metrics of bestsellers. If you can count from 1 to 10 you know enough math to do the tests. The book has crystal-clear diagrams, cartoon line drawings, detailed analyses, and a sprinkling of humor and encouragement so it stays interesting and entertaining.


You talk a lot about numbers of characters in best-selling novelscan you tell us a little about that. Character countingwhat is that? And why is it important?

Too often, good manuscripts are flawed by a carousel of characters dropping into a chapter and then vanishing, never to be seen again. Too many characters create confusion and complicate the plot. Successful novels have basic and measurable numbers of characters that track from beginning to end. Key information a writer needs is, “What’s the right amount of characters?” I’m talking about average-sized novels around 100,000 words or less. Epics and sagas with huge word counts like A Game of Thrones have their own metrics, and there are separate chapters on that.

Leaving the literary leviathans aside, there is a predictable amount of characters that appear in the first quarter of the books I examined. The first quarter of a story is golden—it’s the time when readers get to know the main character and “the world.” Inside the books on my list, in every genre, between 25 and 53 characters appear in the first quarter, no matter if the book is 62,000 words (The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett) or  146,000 words (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn). Flip to the last quarter of each book and you’ll find a range between 4 and 22 characters that made it through to the climax and ending. Will you find novels that don’t match these metrics? Of course! Art isn’t set in stone. But for the beginning novelist, trying to craft a manuscript for sale, these guidelines are tried and true. They will help you create a story that works. Like I say in the book: “Learn the rules, land a publishing deal, and then break all the rules you want.” 



You talk about discovering the secrets of best-selling books like— 

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding, The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler, Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn, The Color of Magic - Terry Pratchett, Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice, A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin, Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling, A Confederacy of Dunces -John Kennedy Toole, The Shining - Stephen King, Lady Chatterley’s Lover - D. H. Lawrence, The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins, The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger, The Lincoln Lawyer -Michael Connelly, Monster Hunter International -Larry Correia, The Other Side of Midnight - Sydney Sheldon, Kill Shot - Vince Flynn 

—what are those secrets?

I examine each cast of characters and their relationships to one another. I provide simplified outlines for some books and point out the major plot elements. Nailing the first and second act plot twists can be tricky, and as far as I know, no book has distilled this information before. Hollywood does these breakdowns for films all day long, but nobody’s done it for novels. This is the kind of information I longed for and searched everywhere for as a first-time writer. A career novelist email me yesterday and said, “If I’d had this book 20 years ago, I could have saved a lot of time.” That was a pretty big compliment.


Anything else that you’d like to say?

Friend me on Facebook and ask any questions you like. Visit me at bestsellermetrics.com. You can email me there, too. Look inside the book at https://www.amazon.com/Bestseller-Metrics-Novel-Writing-Structure/dp/1546524886. FYI, there is no e-book and there likely won’t be one. This is a full-size workbook meant to be written in.

Thank you for joining us, Elaine.

***


And now for the usual BSP:

My short story “Blood Moon” will be coming out in Day of the Dark (Stories of the Eclipse). Edited by Kaye George. Releasing July 21, 2017, one month before the big solar eclipse on August 21st. From Wildside Press. Available for Pre-Order on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073YDGSL5


www.PaulDMarks.com

17 April 2017

God Bless the Beta Reader


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


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.

31 January 2017

Editing from Sea to Shining Sea


Anton Graff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, an anthology of private eye stories (bet you couldn’t figure that out from the title) that I co-edited with Andy McAleer was released yesterday. And while I think it’s a great book with a terrific variety of writers and PI stories—and I hope you’ll all pick up a copy—that’s not exactly what I’m going to talk about here. But it is the jumping off point. And while this might be a little on the BSP side, it’s really meant to talk about the editing process for an anthology.

This is the second volume in the Coast to Coast series, so my second at bat wearing the editor’s green eyeshade.

The process is interesting, at least to me. Maybe once I’ve edited twenty books the novelty will have worn off. But right now everything about it is new and exciting. One of the most unusual aspects of the Coast to Coast editing process is that Andy and I have worked together on two volumes now, and we’ve been friends for many years, and yet we’ve never met in person. We’ve done all of our editing via email, snail mail, phone, etc… So I thought it might be fun to include Andy in this blog and get some of his thoughts on the editing process.

The first step in the process is coming up with a subject or theme for the book. The first volume was Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, which is pretty much what the title says, murders across the country, from coast to coast.

Private Eyes is the topic for the second volume. And we’re currently thinking up something for the third, though I think we know what it’s going to be….

Next you have to figure out who would be right for the topic. And in our case, since one of the themes is “coast to coast” we have to try to find people from across the country who would be good for that topic and who could set their stories dotted across the map. So even though there might be ten people in L.A. who would be great for the subject matter, we can’t use them all. And the absolute hardest part of the process for me is not being able to use all the great writers out there and having to whittle it down. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and don’t feel bad if you haven’t been asked. There’s a lot of different criteria that goes into choosing authors and one of them with these volumes in particular is trying to get people from various parts of the country, that coast to coast thing you know. Still it pains me when I can’t ask certain people or when people ask me if they can be in it, but for one reason or another we have to say no.

Since these volumes are not done via an open submissions process, we ask people to contribute. Some say yes, others have other commitments. And you have to try again—until you get the right mix—which is fine because there’s a lot of great writers out there. But with our series, as I said, we have the added dimension of having to be spread out from coast to coast so that does make it a little more difficult. But eventually you get your batting lineup. One major hurdle crossed.

Andy McAleer
According to Andy the hardest part of editing was: “…the fear of rejection from authors. I set my heights rather high for the authors I wanted. I wanted authors who knew the PI genre backwards and forwards and knew how to use that knowledge to tell a great story. Everyone I asked very generously agreed to contribute a story. Then I’m like, what was I worried about!”

While waiting for the stories to come in and since we’re both writers as well as editors, Andy and I are working on our own stories for the volume. We’re also in touch with the publisher and his people about cover art, contracts, and all the various other minutia that goes into getting it all together.

Andy said this about his experience writing his story for the anthology: “It was very difficult for me. In this case my story ‘King’s Quarter’ was the first piece of fiction I’d written since I’d returned home from Afghanistan three years prior. I just couldn’t create. So I boxed myself in by making promises I had to keep, having little faith I could make it happen. But like all the other contributors I made a promise to do something and to do it on time. I wasn't about to let my partners in crime—especially Paul—down. This forced me to write and complete what I started.”

As the deadline approaches the stories start to come in and we have to set about reading them. Usually a quick-ish first read just to get the gist and make sure most of the nuts and bolts are in place. Then deeper reads. And as the deadline for getting the stories in gets closer and some still haven’t come in you start panicking. So you begin to nudge people. On one of the volumes one person had to drop out, but we had enough stories to cover.

As Andy says, “Paul and I were committed to getting the manuscript into the hands of our publisher, Down & Out Books, on their schedule not ours. We already knew we had professional authors working with us, so we knew we were going to get great stories in manuscript form—and get them on time!”

Then the editing process begins in earnest, assisted by my wife Amy, who is a pretty darn good editor. As a writer, I know I don’t like it when editors change my words or voice or other things in too big a way. Or when they get captious on me. Or, when they’ve heard some “rule” from on high and now everything/everyone has to follow that rule. One of the reasons I wanted to move out of screenwriting was to have less chefs spoiling the stew, so to speak. So I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for authors and their words. And I hate to change those words ’cause I know how much I hate to be changed. I want to keep the authors’ voices and visions intact. I think that’s important. I will suggest changes if I see problems. I just don’t want to stomp on the voice of the author. And Down & Out was great in respecting our request to be able to do that.

Andy’s best advice for would-be editors: “PLAN. Respect the authors’ and publisher’s time. Paul and I were good about having a definitive game plan before we approached Down & Out with the idea of a second volume of Coast to Coast. We made sure we had realistic deadlines for the contributors and hoped they would find Coast to Coast a worthy project. After the publisher found this acceptable we approached the authors and they seemed okay with the specs. We also created story guidelines so the authors would not have to guess what we wanted. Word limit, what locations in the country were available since we didn’t want multiple stories from the same city—and of course, a private eye had to be the central figure. Last advice, once you have the authors aboard—if they’re professionals—just leave ’em alone. They’ll get the job done.”

Moi
After we do our edit, it goes to the publisher for their edits. Then back to us. And sometimes the publisher wants changes and we try to work with them so everyone is happy. Or we or they will question some colloquialism or other thing and we’ll have to go back to the author to make sure it’s what they want to say. Eventually, the editing gets done. Then it goes back to the publisher for the final touches, putting it all together, marketing and all that good stuff until release day. And after that it’s nothing but glory, right? Right… Awards, fame, riches, groupies. Ah, the glamorous life of the writer.

Andy summed up what he liked most about working on this anthology: “The stories cover so many interesting areas of the country, so I know I had a lot of fun learning about local customs and local word usage. That’s the great thing about crime fiction—you have fun while learning. Seeing the finished project. Something that represents eighteen months of work—satisfying—but best of all is seeing your fellow authors in print, knowing that they created something original for this volume with the intent of pleasing their readers.”

And then it’s on to the next volume before we even have time to hit the Left Bank for a quick absinthe and rest on our laurels.

###

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


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.






02 July 2016

Edit As You Go?


As I mentioned in my column on defining mysteries a couple of weeks ago, there are a lot of questions that always come up when writers get together--and some of the answers depend not so much on knowledge or experience but on the individual quirks of individual writers. Some of our methods and practices seem to be done or not done simply because that's the way our brains are wired, like whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube or the middle, or whether we're always early to appointments or always late, or whether we prefer to unroll the T.P. from the front of the roll or from the back. For writers, one of those questions is do you edit as you go. or do you edit only after the first draft?

Some authors feel it's necessary to make each page (or each paragraph) as perfect as it can possibly be before proceeding to the next; others don't worry much about rewriting or refining until the entire piece is complete, whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel. (NOTE: I'll concentrate mostly on shorts here because that's mostly what I write, but the process can apply to longer works as well.)


For the record, I fall into the second group. My first drafts of a project are not only first drafts, they're rough drafts. And I mean really rough. In my first drafts, I don't worry about style (grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, spelling, capitalization, word choice, word usage) at all. I just write down a stream-of-consciousness summary of the story, sometimes plugging in place-holders like D for detective, K for killer, V1 for first victim, LND for lady next door, etc., and laying out the plot from start to finish. Then I go back and start rewriting and polishing and assigning names and personalities. I've often said that if I'm run over by a truck, anybody who later finds one of my first drafts would think I'd lost my mind, because those yet-to-be-edited works-in-process are truly unreadable to anyone but me.

Again, though, many writers I know choose not to postpone the task of editing. They go ahead and edit their current output, whether it's a hundred words or five thousand, in order to be ready for the next day's work. Some even edit their sentences and paragraphs as they create them. One writer friend of mine is so efficient at doing that, she says that when she's completed editing the final page of her book, she's done. There's no need to do any more editing on anything. I can only imagine that, and in fact I'm in awe of those who can do it. And--for most of us at least--I'm not sure that's the best approach.

My reason is simple. If I did that, if I studied and corrected the words or pages I've completed today
and kept on editing until they're as perfect as I can make them before proceeding, and if I continued to do that day after day . . . what would happen if I suddenly decided, later on in the project, that I need to add something to the plotline, or take something out, or otherwise change the flow of the narrative? I'll tell you what would happen: I'd have to go back and rewrite what I've already rewritten. And I'd wind up wasting a great deal of time. (I should mention here that I use the same edit-only-after-the-first-draft process for nonfiction pieces as well; in fact that's the way I wrote this column. I typed some overall points I wanted to make, all the way to the end, and when all that was finished I went back and tried to fine-tune everything until (hopefully) it made sense.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I know because if you were telling me this, it's what I would be thinking. I would be thinking, If you find you're having to go back into the story and correct so many things, structurewise, maybe you should plan a little more carefully before you start, and then you wouldn't have to backtrack and change things so much. And that'd be good advice, if it worked. For me it doesn't always work. I do plan, and pretty carefully, before I start. Matter of fact, as I've said before at this blog, I'm an outliner rather than a seat-of-the-pantser. I try to map things out all the way from the opening to the ending, at least in my head, before I begin writing. But (which might mean I'm not very good at it) I do often find, during the heat of battle, that I want to improve something or introduce another character, or maybe even change the POV--and when that happens I go back into the story and insert, remove, or rearrange words, phrases, paragraphs, or pages. And when I do that, I don't want to have already edited that part of the story to the degree that I'm satisfied with it. I want instead to plug in the new material and/or remove the old and only then do my final editing. But that's just me.

My edit-as-you-go pals tell me there are several advantages to their way of doing things. One is the fact that (as I've already mentioned) when you're done, you're done. If you're finished, and you've competently edited your work after each page all along the way, let's say, then your story is now complete--no extensive rewriting is required. Another advantage is that you might feel a little more enthused about starting the next day's writing if the previous day's is already edited and near-perfect. And a third reason, I guess, is that if you are constantly editing, improving, and correcting, nonstop, then maybe you're staying sharp(er) and consistently doing what will turn out to be a better job in the end.

I can see that. I can understand those reasons. But I still can't, and won't, do it that way. To me, the advantage of first putting the entire rough story down on paper (or onto your hard drive) is that when that's been accomplished, the hard, creative, most important work is already done. All that's left is the playing around and the polishing, and I'm one of those weird purple who actually likes to rewrite. I like to adjust and refine and tweak a story and try to make it shine--and I'm not at all put off or bored by that process, or by doing it all at one swoop. But I can see that some writers are. To each his own.

A couple more opinions. In a review published in The Writer several years ago, Chuck Leddy wrote: "Irish novelist Anne Enright says, 'I work the sentences and the rhythms all the time. I can't move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road.' Curtis Sittenfield, however, completely disagrees: 'I strongly feel that trying, in a first draft, to make every sentence shine and be perfect before moving on to the next one is a recipe for never finishing a novel.'"

Which brings up the inevitable questions: Do you prefer to edit your manuscripts as you go? Or do you like to write it all down first, warts and all, and then do the editing? Does it depend on the category (or the length) of the manuscript--short/long, fiction/non? Do you see a distinct advantage to either approach? Do you think the preference is by choice, or that it's already ingrained in our DNA?

And the best question of all: If the final product is good . . . does it really matter?

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 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.