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Showing posts from June, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Charting the Novel Story Arc

We are delighted to have our dear colleague Pat Stoltey returning to The Blood-Red Pencil in 2018. Pat has a new book coming out soon and we are helping her celebrate by re-running some of her excellent editing posts from past years. This post was first published here on June 30, 2009 and it's become a tool I use regularly when editing manuscripts for authors. It's proven to be an enormously useful way to help determine if a story begins with enough of a bang, where the plot sags in the middle, and if the ending needs a bit more tension before the satisfying conclusion. Thanks to Pat for contributing one of our most popular posts! ~ Dani Once I have a complete draft of a novel, and before I begin the detailed self-editing process, I want to evaluate the story arc to determine whether I need to add, delete, or revise sections of the manuscript. If this is done before the line-by-line edit, then I won’t waste time on sections that might be completely rewritten, or even elim

Stumbling Blocks

If you lose your momentum on a book project, is it possible to get it back? Most times, I would say yes. Let’s say you’re writing along and things are going great. Then you hit a block. You don’t know where to go from there. You’re stuck. Here are some ideas. Run through the plot so far. If you’ve been keeping a Book Bible, refer to that. What has been the sequence? As you do that, envision the characters. (Get up and walk around, if that helps.) Now envision what your character would do next. Or perhaps envision what would be the absolute worst thing that could happen to your character at this point. Then either sit down and write it or make notes on the different scenarios you come up with. Or if this kind of walking, talking and visualizing is not your thing, then get out paper or sit at your computer and type ideas. Doesn’t matter how wild or crazy, you’re not judging them at this time. Right now, you just type ideas as they come into your head. You can go back and filter them la

Weekend Wisdom

Be yourself. Above all, let who you are, what you are, what you believe, shine through every sentence you write, every piece you finish. ~ John Jakes

Variations on a Theme of English : US and UK English

In years past, people would travel if they wanted to experience a different culture. These days we can simply click a mouse and go surfing. The Internet has become such a normal part of our day to day life that we no longer really consider the fact that we are interacting with people from all over the world. If you keep a careful eye on vernacular English, you can really expand your markets for articles and short stories, in particular, or even pick up some out-sourced work. And, of course, it is a simple matter to edit your old articles to rework them for a foreign market. Here are my top three favourite differences between North American English (NA) and UK English (UK): Aluminum (NA) Aluminium (UK) American English has dropped the second “i” and changed the pronunciation to “al-oo-mi-num”; UK English pronunciation is “ala-min-ee-um”. I could care less. (NA) I couldn’t care less. (UK) UK English speakers don’t consider “less” to be a negative, but a comparative - ie, the opposite of

Writing a Synopsis Doesn't Have to Kill You

You pitched this really great story idea to an editor, and now she wants to see, gulp, a SYNOPSIS. For most authors, writing a synopsis is like being asked to kneel on tacks for a week. In fact, it's probably worse, but several years ago I discovered a technique that made it considerably less painful. At the time, I’d been working primarily on film scripts and the style of writing had become second nature. I loved the techniques of quick cuts and sparse narratives. When I was asked for a rapid turn-around on a synopsis and sample chapters for my novel, ONE SMALL VICTORY, I was seized with a sudden panic. I didn’t even have a working outline for this book. How could I even begin to put this proposal together on a tight deadline? That’s when I got the idea to use some of the scripting techniques I’d become so comfortable with. First, I started a rough outline of the story in the form of “story beats.” Some people use index cards for each beat, but I prefer to work on a legal pad maki

Gone With the Wind

Daily writing adds up in more ways than one. Not only does your word count increase, but so does your skill. All writing matters, and this includes blogging. Because blogging is instantly public, it might be more important in some aspects than our journals or more serious writing, like a novel-in-process. If you do it regularly, it eventually blossoms into a large body of work. So what happens when your blog disappears? It happened to our fellow editor, Marvin Wilson, just last week. Blogger killed not one, but two of his blogs, sites in which he’d invested an enormous amount of time and energy. Gone with the wind. Just like that. Poof. No exclamation given. There are no guarantees that platforms like Blogger or WordPress will guard the safety of your creative work. You have to take precautions yourself. I protect my writing by drafting in an MSWord file, and then copying and pasting to the HTML window of a new post in Blogger. This way, I have all my writing accumulated and saved on m

Characters in a series

I belong to the Story Circle Network , a writing organization for memoirists. We have an active Yahoo!Group for members, and every weekend chat about books we're currently reading. Recently, we discussed long-time serial authors like Nevada Barr and Sue Grafton, and most of us had strong feelings that their evolving series had become too plot-driven, perhaps even too sensationalized, with a disappointing lack of deep character development. I'm really ready for Kinsey Milhone to have a serious love relationship, aren't you? Anna Pigeon could have spent a little time with her new husband after she got married, but didn't. Call me disappointed and a little unwilling to read the newest book unless I know she'll be spending some time with Paul. One of the things I like most about L.j. Sellers' Detective Wade Jackson character, is that he does develop as a person from novel to novel. It's not just plot-driven writing although the current events issue in each book

Writing Tips From Elmore Leonard

Maybe we should all hang up our red pencils here and just keep a link to this great article by Elmore Leonard in the New York Times. We've discussed many of the points he covers: dialogue attributives, adverbs (here they are again ) passive verbs, and many more, but he has a knack for restating them with a bit of a punch. He starts his article with, "These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over." What a polite way of encouraging us to improve our craft. Elmore Leonard has been commended by critics for his gritty realism and strong dialogue. His writing style sometimes takes liberties with grammar in the interest of speeding along the story. In his essay, &q

Adverbs Revisited

Here at the Blood Red Pencil we have discussed the use of adverbs already, but this is a subject well worth another reminder. First let me say emphatically that ADVERBS WEAKEN WRITING. Case in point is my use of an adverb here. My statement was very emphatic and I didn't need to point that out with the adverb. Any time we do that when it is not necessary is an insult to the reader. It's like were telling him or her that they aren't smart enough to figure out the subtle nuances of behavior or dialogue without a not so subtle hint. For example, consider these few lines of dialogue from book I recently received to review: "Hi Jesse," Evie waved back excitedly. --- How does one wave excitedly? Wouldn't it be better to show the excitement? "My dad has to go," Jesse said sharply. --- This was in response to another character inviting Evie to visit later and meet Jesse's father. The terseness of Jesse's comment has the sharp edge and doesn't n

Stop Butting In

Having a strong and unique voice is considered a good quality in an author. It is one of those intangibles that keeps readers coming back for more. But novice authors often have a rookie habit of "butting in" to the story to interject their own thoughts and/or information. It can be a jarring disruption to the story line. Here is an example: John walked past the flowering shrubs, enjoying the smell. Forsythias are what he was smelling; they are indigenous to Southeast Michigan. He spotted Mary standing next to the water fountain, walked up to her and said, “Hi, Mary.” Mary’s face lit up as she said, “Oh, hi, John, long time.” ~~~~~ See how the second sentence is just stuck in there? It stops the story's forward motion while the author tosses in a fact. It is better to deliver information by letting the characters do the talking - like this: John walked past the flowering shrubs, enjoying the familiar smell. He spotted Mary standing next to the water fountain, walked up to

Internal Dialogue: First Person or Not?

Recently an editor at a small publishing house wanted me to rewrite all internal dialogue in be first person, present tense. My novel is written in third person, past tense. She said first person is standard for internal dialogue, and she also urged me in several places to change the text to internal dialogue. I didn’t do it. As a reader, if I’m reading a third-person, past-tense story and suddenly the author switches to first person, present for internal dialogue, I find it jarring. So I don’t write internal thoughts that way. I try to keep the internal dialogue to a minimum, because the formatting requires italics, and so many readers hate italics. (“Distracting, annoying, and hard to read,” they say.) So my internal dialogue is often quite brief, a word or phrase. Even when it’s longer, it stays in third person. Examples: The first example is how I wrote it. The second example is how the editor wanted to change it. Conner hit the floor and did forty push-ups, muscles responding as t

Mom, Dad, and the Government

If I write your name in all capital letters do I love you more? If I start a word with a capital letter does it make it more important? Does it show my adoration more explicitly? These seem to be questions people inexplicably have begun to ask themselves to determine when certain words need a capital or small case letter. Mother, father, mom, dad, and government seem to be words that drive normal, grammatically correct people over the edge. The emotion around these words seems to mix people up. They start throwing capital letters around as if they are darts with suction cups on the end- but can I warn you- all darts can put an eye out. Did your mother teach you nothing? Some people (including my child’s English teacher- unfortunately) have attempted to impose a false structure with bizarre rules like -all of them are always capitalized. (What? Have you gone mad?) I think part of that is misappropriated love. Yes, I love my mother. Yes, I love my father. Yes, I love my government. BUT c

It’s All in the Details

Think about your descriptions. Sometimes it's the little things that say the most. As an example, read this sentence by V.S. Naipaul in Guerrillas : "A triangle of white light was advancing from the porch into the sitting room, over the curling edge of the electric-blue carpet, which lay untacked on the terrazzo floor." "Porch" and "sitting room" evoke almost genteel images. "Electric-blue" seems rather modern. But the words that really get to the core are "curling edge" and "untacked." Without those minuscule details, the sentence would have a whole different meaning. What could you say about an object or a scene or a character that would be so right-on it would be unforgettable or would bring that image into sharp focus? Look at this from Rumer Godden in Black Narcissus : "The woman's face was Chinese, brown and withered like a ginger root; she wore dark blue clothes, a necklace of turquoises and sharp little

The Azure Blue Sky

A streak of white light cut across the azure blue sky -- Okay, stop right there. What's wrong with this sentence? The thing that stands out to me is "azure blue sky." Why? Because it's wasteful. You only get so many words per book. Don't waste even one. You don't need to say, "azure *blue* sky" since azure means "pale blue." That's like saying, "the pale blue blue sky." Yeah, I know we all tend to zip through the first draft, waxing poetic, as they say, and don't take time to edit our lyrical voices. And the second draft focuses on dialogue (or continuity or chapter hooks or ...), but what about the fifteenth draft? Somewhere along the weary staircase of drafts, we have to stop, catch our breath, and take a close look at the actual words we've used. Examine your writing. Have you used two words when one would do? On the other hand, did you use one word when two or ten would have been better? Your characters are st

Send in the Stunt Double

Not long ago I went to see my hair stylist. As she usually does some time over the summer, she said, “Your hair’s too dark. Let’s brighten it up with some blonde highlights.” If this were a movie, I’d probably say, “Cut to two-and-a-half hours later.” I left the salon looking like the double for the albino in The Da Vinci Code . My hair is so blonde it’s practically white. Which got me to thinking, what do I do now? Do I let it grow for a month or so then get it cut really short and have brown highlights put in? It also got me thinking about the albino in The Da Vinci Code. (If you’re a writer, you should know that’s how the mind of a editor works.) For me, that character is more memorable than any other. Why is that? The key word there is “memorable.” He’s not bland like the protagonist. Despite his appearance, he has color. He has motivation, purpose, and perseverance. This is true whether you’re talking about the movie or the book. He doesn’t get the screen or page time as much

The Copy Editor and the Four Cs

Have you ever wondered what all those different kinds of editors do? Recently I picked up a book titled The Copy editor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications and learned that copy editors look after the four Cs. Being a red-blooded American girl, I immediately thought, "What do cut, color, clarity and carat have to do with editing?" I could make an argument for clarity, but not the rest, so I read further and learned the copy editor has a different for Cs: clarity (of course), coherency, consistency , and correctness. That's nice, but what does it mean? Does the copy editor care if you kill off Uncle Joe in chapter three and resurrect him in chapter twenty? Probably, but the copy editor's main goal is to guide the author to an error-free product with respect to editorial style and language. Editing for language primarily consists of ensuring proper grammar is employed throughout, but also includes other language concerns su

Master Your Genre

GENRE: A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. (American Heritage Dictionary, link ) Pretend for a moment you're not a writer; you are just a reader. You're a fan of romance novels. Think about the hero and heroine in those novels. Think about how the hero and heroine meet in those novels. Think about the major events that happen in those novels. Think about the settings of those novels. Find any similarities? You should. The romance genre has a distinct style, form, and content. Heroes are usually strong, willful, and determined. Heroines are strong, too, but usually have that feminine softness that makes it so easy to swoon at the mere touch of the hero. The two always meet in an exciting way. Despite the obstacles that threaten their relationship, they get together. These distinctive genre conventions are not only obvious in romance, but also they are in crime novels, thrillers, romantic comedy, horror,