Category Archives: Editing your novel

Tips on how to make the most of revising your work or hiring editors

For the Amusement of My Writer Friends

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I’ve been AWOL recently because I’ve been busy writing! I’m trying to slide Book 3 of my mystery trilogy into a channel where it will start floating right along (I suspect you get that metaphor), and I’ve been keyboarding the longhand draft of my “Horse Show Book” (great titles, huh?) that I just completed last week. My hope is that the closing scenes of this psychological suspense/mystery will work as well when I type them as they seemed when I (literally) penned them. We’ll see.

Apropos of that milestone, I had the following conversation with a non-writer friend the other day. I wonder if only writers will “get” this:

Friend: When are you going to publish your Horse Show Book?

Me: Oh, it will be a good while.

Friend: But you said you’d finished it!

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A Unsung Use for that Humble Verb, “Said”

Lightning strike--metaphor for the effect of a strategic use of "said."
Making writing zing!

Here’s a topic I’ve never seen discussed: a service the lowly verb “said” can perform.

We get showered with advice about dialogue tags. E.g., if you must use them, use only plain ol’ “said.” If at all possible, don’t use them. As I pointed out in my recent post on strategies for cutting, eliminating the dialogue tag by letting an action do its work can save words almost every time.

But I’ve found “said” to be a strategic device in its own right for managing the rhythm of scenes.

Scenes have peaks and valleys, riffs that build to a turning point in a dramatic exchange, then fall off, only to rise again—mini-crescendos, if you will. And each scene should end on a note of finality, of closure, rather than dribbling off into that bare line break. The high moments, where the scene will turn to its next compelling development, as well as the last line, need the weight of a tough nugget of sound that “punctuates” these peaks.

I suggest humbly that even where it’s not needed for coherence or clarity, “said” can be recruited to supply this rhythmic punch.

Here’s an example to show what I mean. Imagine this as a scene ascending to its close:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it.”

Nothing wrong with that ending. But I suggest that it feels as if there’s more to come. If so, it doesn’t signal a solid scene ending, a turning point, as scene endings should. Let’s add the tag:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it,” she said.

No, “she said” is not “needed.” But if this is a peak transition in a scene or an ending line. “said” brings the moment home with a satisfying pop.

Obviously, like all writing choices, this one should be employed purposefully. Often you can tweak the crescendo line so it ends with its own strong beat. But it doesn’t hurt to have “she said” or “he said” or “they said” in reserve.

Have you ever used “said” this way? Share your examples!

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Power Cutting II: Quick Line- Edit Tricks to Streamline Your Prose

I cut a 107,000-word manuscript to 90,000 words; a 106,000-word ms. to under 100,000.

Was there pain involved? A little, I guess.

But why give an agent a reason to reject a query right in the first line? Querying a 150,000-word mystery screams that I don’t know genre rules.

It may sound as if I think that cutting serves only a specific purpose, to meet genre requirements. But I’ve found as well how tightening can enliven prose and enrich readers’ experiences. The process forces me to look at what matters in a scene or a story.

Case in point: the original draft of King of the Roses was 700 pages. My wonderful St. Martin’s editor told me to lose 200 of them. What a difference. (I had to learn the hard way that the skills I used then should be used every time. Don’t be me.)

Alarmed green smiley

I’ve posted previously about the “big-ticket” strategies I discovered in my cutting process. Here are some specific tricks you can use to “line-edit,” that is, tackle your prose sentence by sentence.

These reflect my belief that every word counts. It’s great to watch a single select-delete take 500 words off your word count, but if you chop 20 words from every page of a 300-page novel, that’s 6,000 words!

You can find most of these strategies in various “how-to” books for writers, not least of which may be old stand-bys like Strunk and White. Many look really obvious. They are—but when I began to line-edit, I was surprised how often I’d missed opportunities to use them. Always, of course, clarity comes first! But when you absolutely must find that last few thousand words, these are simple tools.

  • Opt for contractions when you can.

She had seen is three words; she’d seen is two

  • Exchange many (or even just two) words for one:

He took the gun out of his pocket/He took the gun from his pocket.

If I couldn’t come up with a solution/If I couldn’t supply/provide/suggest/manage, etc., a solution (more precision as well as economy!)

  • Cut or reduce what I’ll call “directives” when they don’t add information. These are often prepositional phrases.

He offered the flower to me. I took it from him.

He offered the flower. I took it.

She walked ahead of me/She walked ahead.

I logged into my computer/I logged in.

  • Eliminate prepositional phrases by turning the object (a noun) into an adjective.

A castle with many chambers/a many-chambered castle.

  • Reduce dialogue tags to actions.

“I can’t do that,” said Jane, shaking her head.

“I can’t do that.” Jane shook her head.

Caveat: make sure who’s speaking is clear. Actions just before or after dialogue should be performed by the speaker of the dialogue.

  • Combine sentences. This strategy can sometimes make one verb or modifier do the work of two.

I probably owed my friends some accounting of how I’d ended up on the news. So far they hadn’t asked, and for that I was grateful.

So far my friends hadn’t asked how I’d ended up on the news, and for that forbearance I was grateful. (26–20, even with a clarifying word added).

  • Verbalize! Many words have both a noun form and a verb form. Usually the verb form is less wordy and, as a bonus, more active. Many style books will have lists of these noun forms.

Made a decision/decided

Took into consideration/considered

Had a picnic at the park/picnicked at the park

  • One option for cutting that is a little more subtle but useful when you become aware of it is the opening sentence that explains what the following paragraph does. (thanks to a writing-group colleague for showing me how many times I committed this sin).

Austin traffic took the nerves of a fighter pilot. That morning gave me more hair-raising near misses than usual, people driving as if lane lines were just decorations. Turning onto the university campus, I congratulated myself on having let loose only a few muffled curses.

Austin traffic that morning gave me more hair-raising near misses than usual, people driving as if lane lines were just decorations. Turning onto the university campus, I congratulated myself on having let loose only a few muffled curses.

I love my clever little opener, but when I need cuts, doesn’t the paragraph work fine without those nine extra words?

  • Related: the opening sentence that you then repeat in different words. Again, I catch these more often than I’d like to admit.

The question didn’t faze me. I’d spent half my life preparing to answer it.

I’d spent half my life preparing to answer that question.

Note, there’s nothing wrong with any of these choices. My focus here is that time when you really, really must cut. Hate to slice out your beautiful descriptive or emotional passage? These simple strategies might buy the space you need to let your darlings be.

What strategies do you use to pare the last edges off your prose?

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The Biggest Writing Craft Issue New Novelists Face, and 7 Ways to Avoid It. – by Anne R. Allen…

Thanks for more important advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen. I think I’m at a “chaos point” myself right now, but at least I do have that last scene in mind–like Anne recommends!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

We all have a writing craft issue or two…or three or four or five, no matter where we are in our careers. Yes, even professional authors who have written ten or more novels. I’m wrestling with some myself with my forthcoming Camilla book, Catfishing in America, which is still, alas, only half way there. It’s at that stage that Melodie Campbell called the “Chaos Point” in her wonderful post for us “My Novel is a Mess.”

Thing is—creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action.  All those elements have to come together in one story.

One story.

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No-Comma Zones!

Cartoon policeman

Grammar Police do exist.

They’re called agents.

I present as evidence a memory of my then-agent saying that when she saw a comma after “and” or “but” in a query or manuscript, she quit reading.

I consider her automatic rejection a bit extreme, but she highlights an important fact: agents are always in need of a reason to move on to the next query. If something as simple as a misplaced comma can earn instant rejection, why not work on getting such small triggers fixed?

I’ve created a list of what I consider five basic comma rules; I argue that if your questionable comma doesn’t fit one of these categories, you’re better off leaving it out. Many times a sentence’s meaning is perfectly clear without commas even if technically you should use them. Commas, correctly placed, control rhythm and emphasis in sentences, and where you use one can be a judgment call.

However, there are a few places where commas tend to crop up when they really shouldn’t. In these instances, they can interrupt rhythm rather than improve it and in some cases, they actually muddle meaning.

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway

Here are three “no comma zones” you should be aware of.

1. Around essential modifiers when the essential element is a name.

Understanding essential vs. non-essential modifiers can be daunting. Here, I’ll review the protocol, but check out this link for additional guidance and more good examples.

A non-essential modifier provides additional information that really is just that—additional. It isn’t needed for the sentence to make sense.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

Take out “which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive,” and the sentence works just fine.

Non-essential modifiers take TWO commas, one before and one after. Think of the commas as “cuts” you could use to lift out the non-essential stuff. But consider:

The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.

Without the modifier, we have:

The car is the one you should buy.

Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the work the sentence is meant to do.

Essential modifiers DO NOT TAKE COMMAS. Using them around these elements violates the “no comma zone.” And that is even true—especially true—when the essential element is a name.

You may have been taught that “appositives” always take commas. They certainly can. Except when they are essential elements. To see how you can decide, look at this:

Author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

The commas mean you can lift the name out. Try it.

Author writes a lot of thrillers.

See?

If you have so many commas you really want to use them up, you can write instead,

The author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

Personally, I would use commas in this instance only if we were talking about some book of which Steven King is the author, not if we are talking about him in general as an author. Compare “The author Steven King writes a lot of thrillers.” In my view, that’s perfectly fine, even though “Steven King” is technically an appositive.

Typewriter with question marks on the page

2. Between a subject and its verb

The cat with the calico coat, is my sister’s.

You wouldn’t do this? I’ve been in enough writing groups to know that a surprising number of people do. Understandable confusion arises when the “subject” is followed by some kind of interrupting modifier, which would be set off with commas:

The cat with the calico cat, however, is my sister’s.

In addition, looong subjects that may have their own internal commas can make it hard to detect the subject’s verb.

For example, in the sentence I just wrote, the “subject” extends from “looong subjects” all the way to “commas”; “can make” is the relevant verb. So sticking a “pause” between “commas” and “can” would violate this rule. Think of it as a “pause” that unnecessarily breaks up the sentence’s natural flow.

Big question mark in clouds

3. After introductory “And” or “But.”

If you are a disciple of Word’s grammar checker, you may never commit the supposed sin of starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” But doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation. What’s NOT acceptable would be

But, doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation.

The only possible reason to use a comma in this construction is to emphasize the “But.” In fact, commas in general throw emphasis onto the word directly before them. Such a strategy, though, should be a conscious decision. You couldn’t credibly claim you want to emphasize every “but” or “and” you write.

The Bottom Line:

While many excellent blog posts have been published about comma usage, in my view, these three cases of “no comma zones” have gotten short shrift. But each can act as a trigger for that agent or editor with a full inbox. Why not keep them reading long enough to discover your great work?

Book with pages folded like a heart

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4 Newbie Writer Mistakes that can Derail a Great Book Idea – by Anne R. Allen…

Every time I read one of Anne R. Allen’s columns, I learn and relearn so many valuable principles—and I just have to share. I’ve sort of learned a lot that she talks about in this piece (for example, not getting stuck on your first chapter, looking for advice too early, looking for advice from the wrong people), but these reminders are incredibly helpful as well as inspiring. What I need to hear most: In first drafts, the answer is “Just write.”

Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing Anne’s posts.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

You’ve got a fantastic idea for a novel. It’s been hanging around for quite a while, knocking inside your noggin. The idea keeps saying, “Let me out! Release me! Put me in a book!”

Maybe there’s a scene in your head that plays like a video, with every detail of the setting right there, as if it’s on a screen. You know those characters. They’re like real people to you.

But you’ve never had the time to write it all down.

Now you do.

So here you are, finally banging out that scene. And another. And pretty soon you’ve written 10,000, maybe 15,000 words of brilliant, deathless prose. It almost wrote itself. Wow. That was almost too easy.

It IS brilliant, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not. Maybe what’s on the page isn’t quite as good it seemed when you were in the zone.

In fact, it could be terrible. What…

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10 Good Grammar Resources by Melissa Donovan…

I’m not a fan of those apps and checkers that purport to “fix” your writing. They get way too hysterical about choices that should be judgment calls (e.g., starting a sentence with “But”). Here, however, is a useful list of common-sense sources to help with grammar conundrums. Thanks to Melissa Donovan, and to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing it.

(Forgive a moment’s rant about people I see on various self-help social-media pages who claim that they can be good writers while dispensing with a thorough understanding of the “grammar rules.” Some of these “rules” are flexible, but some basic punctuation conventions and sentence-structure mandates like subject/verb agreement are not. Yes, commas can be tricky, and we can argue about which ones are needed and which are optional, but if you still don’t know where apostrophes belong and where they don’t. . . . Yes, there really are grammar police. They’re called agents. 😦 )

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Writing Forward:

There’s good grammar and bad grammar, proper grammar and poor grammar. Some writers have fun with grammar and for others, grammar’s a bore. But in order to communicate effectively and for our writing to be professional (and publishable), we all need reliable grammar resources.

There is no grammar authority, no supreme court of grammar where judges strike down the gavel at grammar offenders. Grammar is not an exact science (in fact, it’s not a science at all), and even among the most educated and experienced linguists, the rules of grammar are heavily debated.

Of course, there are some basic rules we can all agree on, and these can found in any good grammar resource. There are gray areas, too, which are skillfully handled by style guides.

As writers, we need these resources. They help us use language effectively. Good grammar ensures that our work is readable. And…

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Using “The Bookalyser” to Help You Edit Your Manuscript

A digital eye on your text

A digital eye on your text

I’ve reblogged Louise Harnby’s “10 Ways to Proofread Your Own Writing” from Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog. Harnby’s post is full of free tools for catching slips in your final copy. I decided to try out one of them, “The Bookalyser” on the completed ms. of my as-yet-unpublished Surfing the Bones, a 98,000-word mystery.

STB had gone through an extensive edit, not least because an online critique process had left it much richer emotionally but far too long. Even though I’m currently responding to a beta read by updating some of the technology driving the plot and making minor setting changes, I considered the draft a good example of my own editing process. So I was curious to see what an editing app could tell me. What did I miss?

I have an advantage because I’m a grammar nerd capable of catching non-standard verb forms and recognizing passive-voice constructions. I can also form plural possessives, an apparently challenging task.Green smiley with a quizzical smile So standard “grammar-checkers” don’t help me much; they usually just object to my deliberate sentence fragments or my decision to start a sentence with “But.” I wanted to see if The Bookalyser offered more.

Like many programs for writers, the BA has a free version and two levels of paid versions. I used the free one. The site says out front that the tool won’t help you with style and usage questions; Word, it says, can do that. Instead, this tool provides a numerical/statistical portrait of certain features of your ms.

As advertised, if you register with email and password, it will run through your full manuscript in seconds and provide a full printout of its findings.

Rather than describe the “more than 70 different tests (and growing) across 17 report areas,” I’ll discuss what I found most useful.

I learned that

  • I use the word “maybe” 166 times, which is 10 times more than usual for fiction. Worth a search to see if I can cut some of those. Still, 166 times in 98,000 words isn’t cause for panic, I am relieved to say.
  • Less than 1% of my text consists of the dreaded “-ly” adjectives, and only two appeared more often than expected. The app did call “belly” an “-ly” adverb, but I guess that can be forgiven in such a complex app.
  • “Filler words” like “actually,” “fairly,” “just,” and “really” made up 0.59% of my text, as compared to 0.65% for fiction in general. Still, worth doing a search to see whether these are needed.
  • I used “said” as a dialogue tag 207 times and some other tag 41 times, with only 7 of these tags used more than once. I report proudly that I used a dialogue tag with an “-ly” adverb only 8 (!!!) times in my 98,000-word text.
  • The app did look for “passive” constructions, which it defined broadly, with “is dead,” “was afraid,” and “be afraid” alongside true PV forms like “was followed” or “been killed.” In other words, predicate adjectives counted in this category. Even so, the app said that only 2.5% of my sentences fell into its “passive” categories. Hooray.
  • The app compared phrases that I had hyphenated with instances of the same phrase that I did not hyphenate. I’m pretty good on hyphens, but this choice is well worth a search.
  • It also encouraged me to look at spelling inconsistencies like “check out” vs. “checkout” and “web site” vs. “website.” Quick checks should allow me to decide on a preferred form.

Suggestions for eliminating possible redundancies were less helpful. I looked at a number of these and will look at them all, but found that the shorter version often sounded less natural, especially in dialogue. These are judgment calls often resulting in a savings of one word. While in my aggressive edit to eliminate 7000 words, every word did count, the trade-off (hmmm, hyphen?) was problematic. Example: “He didn’t admit to a crime” vs. “He didn’t admit a crime.” I’ll stick with the former. That said, the program did catch “more perfect”—but this one was in dialogue. Big green smiley

Oh, and it said it didn’t find any “Clichéd similes/comparisons.” ♥♥♥

I didn’t find useful information under “Commonly confused words and phrases,” but many writers will probably appreciate this section. The app captures proper names and variances in capitalization as well. It listed word counts of various kinds, like most frequently used, most frequently used word trios, and most frequently used to open sentences. In my first-person text, “I” opened 1329 sentences compared to “He” (645) and “The” (435). Probably not a problem, but maybe worth a look.

In short, this is a FREE, rapid-acting tool that does provide interesting insights into my writing habits, offering me the chance to save a copy editor some work one day—and to produce a better-edited text should I publish this book myself. I recommend.

 

 

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10 ways to proofread your own writing – by Louise Harnby…

I always like the advice Louise Harnby offers, and when Chris the Story Reading Ape shares one of her posts, I dive in. This post is packed with ideas for catching proofreading problems. I tried out the free “Bookalyser” app included and downloaded Harnby’s free guide to using Find/Replace in Word to catch glitches. In my next posts, I’ll report on what I found useful in the Bookalyser, and I’ll compare my own free download for using Find/Replace to catch proofreading slips to hers. In the meantime, hope you find this helpful!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Fresh eyes on a piece of writing is ideal. Sometimes, however, the turnaround time for publication precludes it. Other times, the return on investment just won’t justify the cost of hiring a professional proofreader, especially when shorter-form content’s in play. Good enough has to be enough.

Here are 10 ideas to help you minimize errors and inconsistencies.

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Useful Info on Word Counts

Big green smileyThis post from Bookends Literary about the preferred (or maybe acceptable) word counts for different genres justifies my efforts to cut 6,000-7,000 words from my latest finished manuscripts. Since word count is often the first thing an agent or editor sees, I was happy to be able to claim something more appropriate than 107,000 words. image of scissors

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