Of all the writing tips and tricks I’ve gone on with, the easiest to write about have been the editing.
See, for most of the writing tricks I’ve been doing them so long that they aren’t “tricks” anymore. They’re second nature. Just a happy part of the act of writing. For instance: I would find it very hard to talk about foreshadowing as a trick. It’s just a part of storytelling for me now.
But the one part of the process I can speak of a lot is editing. I don’t think it will ever become “second nature”. I think it’s always going to be a bit of a task, partly because it simply doesn’t come naturally to me.
My Editing process goes through many turns. I read the story over and over, focussing on different aspects every time. One of the key and most time consuming is to read it aloud (yet alone). I really feel this helps to identify problems in pacing and narrative.
(It’s also great practice for readings at conventions, but that’s another story altogether).
Not much to say. It does work, on multiple levels. I also find it helps relieve writers block for whatever I’m currently writing.
Not sure what else to say. Perhaps I should have thought this out more.
This might be a good time to remind everyone that if you have questions, ask. It’ll help me write these! 🙂
Let’s take a trip back down memory lane. I was in grade six, so I figure we’re going all the way back to 1996. To Norman’s Cove Elementary. For whatever reason, someone had turned me on to the novels of Kevin Major.
For those of you who don’t know (and this is the Internet, so I’ll wager there’s a bunch of you), Kevin Major is likely the most acclaimed Newfoundland author. He is to Newfoundland what Stephen King is to Maine. Except that Major doesn’t make Newfoundland look like a place filled with drunken hicks and apathetic parents.
Anyway, his two most notable works are Blood Red Ocre and Hold Fast. While Ocre is more popular, it was a little above me at 11, so somebody gave me Hold Fast.
And I was blown away: they were cursing in this book!
Not long after my Principal, Mr. Osborne, came in. I was big into Spider-Man at the time so he always sounded evil to me, but he was a great guy. Anyway, he was doing some kind of lecture encouraging kids to read. There was a real push for reading in schools at the time. I guess there always is, but at this point they didn’t have “reading levels”. It was just read anything. Comics? Fine. Soup labels? Fine. Whatever you wanted to read, just so long as you did.
Which I happen to agree with, but I digress.
Anyway, I (being me) wasn’t sure if I “should” be reading a book with curse words in them, so I asked.
To his credit, Mr. Osborne responded by saying: “If you can read it then you’re mature enough. But if you’re running around the class going ‘Oh look! Swear words!’ Then you aren’t mature enough.”
A fellow student and I exchanged a look, because I had done that the day previous.
So that was my first introduction to the idea that one could curse in literature. And now it is my favorite thing to do ever. I pepper curse words all throughout my stuff, but never needlessly. I like to write to way people speak, and people curse. So my characters do as well. A lot.
I think maybe the point of this post is unclear, but this is mainly for young authors who maybe sensor themselves. Don’t. It’s just not worth it.
I remember my mother stumbling across an early draft of one of my books when I was 17 and just being horrified about the subject matter an the cursing. I think it was a flashback to a main character being molested. So while I understood her outrage, she failed to understand that that was the desired response. You should feel outraged. And that should make it all the better when the character gets over that. Or all the worse when they don’t. Either way.
Off topic again. Cursing where appropriate is good. Don’t let people stifle you. If you’re that kind of author you’re that kind of author. If you’re not you’re not. It’s just that simple.
This will likely be a fairly uneven blog post. I wasn’t even sure if I should file it under “My Writing Process” or “Common Mistakes.” I decided on the former because, while it is a very common mistake to make, it’s one that I make fairly often. As such, it is a part of “my” writing process.
This is about editing. And mainly, the fact that I’m not very good at it. I’ve gotten better at it over the years through a combination of experience and classes at Memorial University, but I’ve still got a long ways to go. There are several contributing factors. The first of which is that it is very, very hard to see flaws in your own work. For anyone. The second is that I simply was never taught the right way. As awesome as my high-school and college English experiences were, there just simply wasn’t enough focus on proper grammar. If I ever become an English teacher I plan to rectify this. People are much more apt to notice your improper use of the word “it’s” in a TPS report than they are to ask you for a random dissertation of Romeo and Juliet.
But there’s this thing that happens amongst some authors where they kind of shrug off grammar issues and “a small complaint.” I remember a newspaper review of the first edition of Black Womb thank, while positive on that narrative, commented on the lack of proof reading. When I told friends in the industry about this, a surprising number of them did in fact comment that these were “minor complaints.”
That’s dangerous thinking, let me tell you.
On the one hand it reduces an author’s urgency to fix the problem. On the other, such thinking in the hands of up-and-coming authors can be damaging. I remember getting a submission to the submissions email once where the grammar was so bad it was barely even readable. The sad thing is I picked through the first few pages and discovered it was actually not a bad story. When I commented to the author about this, he revealed that he had in fact never read his story after writing it and that “that’s what editors were for.”
I’m not kidding.
He did not get picked up.
So the reason, then, that this is a part of “My Writing Process” is because there are times, stylistically, when an author does “break the rules.” Jessica Grant doesn’t use quotation marks. Neither does Jeff Lindsey. I do. Both methods are equally correct. There are times when I will violate good grammar to make a scene’s mood more what I want it to be. I will forgo periods and make a paragraph or sometimes even a page one long sentence. It makes the reader out of breath. If this happens during, say, a chase scene, it can result in your reader being just as out of breath as your character. These are cool tricks you’ll discover along the way, and differ wildly from writer to writer.
Here’s the point: if you have bad grammar or are prone to typos, you’ll never get to use these “breaking the rules” tricks to their full potential. After slogging through ten pages of your mistakes and misuses, when your reader reaches a point where you have intentionally played with structure and rules, it will be dismissed as another mistake and the effect will be lost. I’ve even tried to defend some of my intentional changes to structure before only to have people not believe me. They didn’t believe the author about the intent of his own novel. That’s how deep-seeded the mistrust from bad grammar can get.
So learn from my mistakes and I’ll try to as well.
Okay, so someone finally commented a post in such a way that I can respond to it effectively. Good. Thank you. I like questions, they feed ideas for posts. And that person was… Jay Paulin. Of course it was, why wouldn’t it be? -Sigh-
Let’s get this over with.
In my last Virtual Writing Seminar I said that “I’ll never believe that you can get that kind of divine spark from role playing games.” I’ve gone on rants about gaming and gamers with regard to writing before, and I guess Mr. Paulin finally had enough.
He asks: I’m curious why you would discount the notion that a person could never find inspiration playing a game — one that involves imagination and story-spinning — and then admit mirror-gazing works for you.
The answer is that I find the sort of story-spinning involved in role playing games to just be working the wrong storytelling muscle. These games are fun, but the storytelling in them… see, I don’t want to say it’s bad because then I’ll have a million people freaking out at me. It’s not bad. How do I put this? Let’s put it this way: the type of stories I’d like to read, even fantasy and sci-fi ones, can’t be generated from a game. So much of great literature exists in the quiet, reflective moments that don’t come from games. Also, there’s a tendency in games to try and make your character as powerful as you can. Which makes sense, you’re bringing him into battle. But making-ultra unbeatable and infallible characters makes for boring literature. It’s the Superman problem.
Beyond those reasons, there’s the big one: I’ve seen it not work. This is the biggest one. It’s not that I have a bias against games. It’s that i have a bias against gamers who write, especially ones that write in the same genre that their RPG gameworld exists in. This is a bias formed from many, many tiresome experiences. Games have a different narrative than movies, and the gap is even greater with novels. Ever see a movie in recent years where it seems like the characters just advance from room to room killing bad guys? People comment that these movies “feel like watching a video game,” negatively. The TMNT CGI movie had that complaint a lot. And I can see it. Now, imagine that without even the benefit of visuals… it gets tiresome.
Another issues is that “The Gamer” already has a support structure. They have 5-10 people they play with that all agree that the writer’s story is awesome, either because they have similar interests or because their characters are also featured. Or they’re just Yes-Men, that’s always an option too. Because they have these people telling them it’s awesome, they have no room in their minds for even the slightest criticism.
So, that’s my issue in a nutshell.
Then Jay writes:
My comment may come across as critical but I am legitimately curious. I believe inspiration can come from anywhere so what makes one avenue impossible and another acceptable?
Could you go into a bit more detail in your methods? Do you act scenes out in the mirror, using physical motions and/or facial expressions as starting points for emotion? What negative experiences do you have (first-hand or otherwise) regarding role-playing on a table compared to the success you’ve had role-playing in your mind?
This could lead to an interesting discussion! Hopefully other writers post their opinions on this matter as well.
I absolutely act out scenes in front of the mirror, usually when I’m alone in the house. Typically it’ll be a tense verbal discussion / debate among several characters. It lets me hear what they’re saying out loud so that I can make sure to give each of them different voices and make sure the dialog sounds legitimate. Doesn’t matter that they’re talking about an evil organization bent of the genetic overthrow of the human race, as long as the dialog sounds genuine.
But you’re right, inspiration can come from anywhere. My problem is when people stay too close to the “source material.” It’s like the Watchmen movie. That’s what happens when you stay too close to the source and don’t remember that movies are different from comics. Hear that, gamers? i bet your game is awesome (but stop asking me to play), but a novel is different from a game. You need to realize that before putting pen to page.
Satisfied? (He’s never satisfied).
Never Look Back
(PS: Does Jay have the writing chops? Judge for yourself this April, when his story Gristle While you Work is released in the Engen anthology Light|Dark.)
Fun title I know. This is a Virtual Writing Seminar on Writer’s Block. I’ve spoken before about how I don’t think Writer’s Block exists. I think that we, as writers, are inherently lazy and want to be entertained, so we procrastinate and don’t write. And that’s still true. But there’s another kind of “block” that happens when we can’t figure out where to go next in the story. I call this “Story Stalled.” It happens to everyone and is frustrating to everyone, but there are some ways I’ve figured out that help me get past it. I’ll share them in the hopes they work for you.
First I should define “Story Stalled.” If you wonder why you haven’t been writing anything lately, get up off the couch and sit at the computer. You’re not stalled, you’re lazy. It’s okay, it happens to me too. Like right now, you’re reading a blog post. Chances are that means you managed to get off the couch and come to your computer to write, but for some reason you clicked the web browser instead. STOP IT. Close the browser and WRITE SOMETHING.
Just write. Power through. It might all be crap, but that’s what editing is for. If all those dozens of pages accomplish is to get you back on track and they’re all cut later, that’s still a wonderful accomplishment.
Now, here’s where Stalling comes in. If you feel like you’ve been doing that for too long and haven’t gotten past it yet to the good stuff. Usually I wouldn’t consider it stalled until it hits the twenty page mark. But if you’re there, this post is for you.
Over the years I’ve developed so many ways of dealing with this subconsciously that it honestly doesn’t happen anymore. The fixes become habitual. So I’m going to try my best to peel back the layers of my psyche and come up with a few solutions.
No, not the game. And definitely not with others. No matter what the hardcore gamers say, I’ll never believe that you can get that kind of divine spark from role playing games.
No I’m talking about you, yourself. Your imagination. Take on one of your characters and play out the scene you’re having trouble with. This act of play unlocks something in my brain that lets the story unfold itself in the narrative I’m playing out. Then it’s just a matter of remembering it long enough to get to a computer.
I like doing this in three places: in front of the mirror, walking alone, and driving alone. It’s also where the title of the article comes from: more than once I’ve been walking alone and passed someone, only to realize after that I was talking aloud. They must have thought I was crazy!
This also functions as a good way of getting to know your characters. Getting their voice down so that you can accurately translate it onto the page.
Brainstorm about your Topic
Have a pen handy. Jot down different things in relation to your subject. Don’t be afraid to get crazy. It’ll open up new avenues and thought processes that weren’t there before.
It’s all about getting your brain moving again. Sometimes all it needs is a little push, and this is the way to do that.
I honestly don’t use this one much. I find it often doesn’t work for me, but other authors swear by it. So it’s worth a try if you’re stalled to see if it works for you.
Sit in on a Class
This is a big one for me. Sit in on a big lecture class at your local university. Just listening to a passionate person talk about their field can open up thoughts you never would have had otherwise. Sometimes they’re directly related to what you’re listening to, other times not. The point is to get those creative avenues flowing and get new ideas into your head.
I’ll upload more as I think of them.
So hopefully one of these would have helped.
Too bad you closed the browser when I told you to way up at the top… Right? 😉
Alright, so we’re going to discuss something I like to call “Character-Reader Synchronization.” There may be other, easier terms for it. Sometimes I feel like there’s little that hasn’t been named three times over already. But this is my name for it.
Basically this is an extension of the “writing POV” talk we had a while back, and it’s something to think of when you’re writing to keep the drama in your work. What it boils down to is: don’t let your reader know more than your character knows.
Let’s explain: say there’s a character (strong female type. Played by Glenn Close or Jodie Foster). She has to run to the store and leave her two young children with her teenage daughter from a previous marriage while she’s gone. When she returns only ten minutes later, all three are gone. The remainder of the story then is her trying to find them. Sounds dramatically interesting to me. We could go inside the characters mind and hear all her suspicions about who might have done it: her ex-husband? Her father-in-law? The older man that hit on her daughter at the park two months ago? Who knows?
Well, you do. Or you should. But the character doesn’t. You know who else shouldn’t? The reader.
In a story like this it’s obvious why the “camera” or “narrative focus” should stay on your main character. If you showed what happened to the children as it was happening, there’d be no drama to the remaining scenes in which she tries to figure it out. The reader wouldn’t be invested and trying to figure it out with her, you’d already know. Clues the author places wouldn’t be dramatic, they’d make the reader bash their heads at the stupidity of the character and go: “How can you not see the answer?”
There are lots of examples of this type of writing. There’s a Star Trek: Voyager episode called “Macrocosm” that’s particularly famous for it. But mostly in literature the issue comes about in non-science fiction / horror genres. Most action-oriented genre writers have learned these rules by the time they reach a point in their craft that they’re being published (although we still get a lot of submissions with it). No, mostly in published fiction it’s cases where the author feels this rule does not apply to them. The fantasy and romance and general fiction writers.
Wake up: it applies.
Good drama is the one universal need for good fiction. There’s no way around it. And the above example destroys good fiction. The story might still be good, it might be well written with good dialog, and people might very well still enjoy it… But it’s lost the essential element that would have made it dramatically pleasing and amazing.
This is a one of the only rules I’ll press. Only exceptionally avant-guard authors should even attempt to subvert it, and even then… Probably not.
Great, now I’m going to have that Lion King song stuck in my head all day.
This is another relatively obvious post, but perhaps so much so that I feel it often gets ignored. I know I did for a long time. Put bluntly it’s the act of always being prepared when inspiration strikes you. To sum up: carry a pen and pencil.
Blog post over? Not quite. There’s a little more to it then that. Basically what you’re “being prepared” for is inspiration. While many writers, especially those trained to produce under deadlines by jobs and school like me, can power through periods of dry creativity, there’s one thing nobody can fake: the divine spark. The idea.
Let’s explain. Once you have your novel outlined, most people can still force out some content even if they’re having a bad day. But nobody can force that initial idea that comes and inspires the novel to begin with. Nobody. I don’t care who you are.
This idea can come at any time, so you have to always be prepared. Muses are fickle things. Sometimes they’ll come while you’re sitting at your desk and ready for them, but other times they’ll come when you’re in line for coffee or getting your eyes checked.
So the old pad and pencil. But that’s not very convenient either, is it? Thankfully we live in a digital age. Send yourself a voicemail. Or an email. Or (my personal favorite) use the Notes app on my iPhone (this will be the only time I describe a helpful app on the iPhone). Do anything to get that idea down. Because while sometimes the idea is preserved seamlessly in your mind (I’ve had the opening scene to a book called Black Womb Returns perfect in my head for over a decade), other times it’ll evaporate within seconds. And there’s nothing more frustrating or painful for a writer than realizing you’ve lost what you’re sure would have been a best-seller because you didn’t have a pen.
But as a point, don’t go into too much detail. You don’t need to stop in the middle of Starbucks and write an eighty page outline. A) that’s time consuming and b) if the story never evolves further than the first idea you’re in trouble.
Take the note above, which I jotted down in iPhone Notes:
“Stuck on an elevator” novel
Man hits on woman,
They get stuck in an elevator together.
You don’t get much simpler than that. And the novel, whenever I get around to writing it, might never be like that. Or I may never write it. It’s so loose an idea that it’s just there to remind me. To spark the fires of inspiration when I’m near my keyboard. Like a string around my finger. It could be anything by the time it’s done. Or started.
So yeah, that’s my ramble on being prepared. If you find an idea, find a way to get it down. Don’t let it evaporate.
Make sure to give your idea the best chance at life you can, because only you can do it. And I’m sure it’ll be great.