Category Archives: writing novels

Writing, revising, selling your fiction books

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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Filed under Editing your novel, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers, writing novels

Verb Tenses You’ve Never Heard of But Use Everyday

I am unable to resist posting this. Sorry. Ignore at will.

And oh, yeah, “lie/lay/lain” is CORRECT here.

If you are interested, you should be able to find the group “Society for the Preservation of Irregular Verbs” in your social media. Looks like fun!

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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.

Continue reading HERE

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100 Common Publishing Terms – by Robert Lee Brewer…

I suspect I’m not the only one for whom this list is useful! Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing it!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Writers Digest:

Here’s a list of 100 common publishing terms and their definitions, including the meanings of ARC, high concept, simultaneous submissions, and so much more.

Get Full Details HERE

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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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Filed under correct grammar for writers of fiction, Editing your novel, grammar rules for writers, punctuation for writers of novels, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers, writing novels

The Hardest Comma Rule!

Check the five basic comma rules
Comma Love

Mathina Calliope, at Jane Friedman’s site, does a terrific job of explaining essential/restrictive versus nonessential/nonrestrictive commas, with lot of examples. I know from many observations that writers struggle with this distinction. It’s one of what I argue are “the only comma rules you’ll ever need,” but it’s the hardest to explain in a short space. So head over and check out her discussion.

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So-True Post: Some Hard Facts about Publishing

Soooo many books! Why write one more?
Soooo many books out there

Over at Writers in the Storm, guest blogger Tasha Seegmiller writes not to offer a “downer,” but instead, to help people align their expectations of writing a little better.”

This column reminded me how I’m constantly surprised by some of the questions aspiring writers ask on self-help Facebook sites. Yesterday, is grammar important? Today, should an author get a web site? This column offers some advice I think everyone hoping to publish needs.

Me included. Realizing that writing is a business—never a comfortable home territory for me—but also that it really has to be something you just can’t help doing: These are the reminders I need.

A while back, in answer to a post on the pros and cons of self- versus traditional publishing, I wrote “What It Was Like for Me,” an account of my own experiences being traditionally published. Even though my encounter with the realities of publishing happened quite a long time ago, I still found that Seegmiller’s take resonated. It was ever so, and I didn’t know enough then to negotiate this strange and daunting space.

Follow good blogs and wonderful people like @JaneFriedman. As Seegmiller says, educate yourself. So you’ll be more ready than I was.

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Questions to Ask Your Publisher Before You Sign the Contract – by Jane Friedman…

There are a few folks I consider treasures for the #writingcommunity. If you’re not familiar with Jane Friedman, take the time to learn about her. (And make sure you subscribe to Chris the Story Reading Ape, a terrific curator of posts we all can use.)

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Over the weekend, you might have seen a writing-and-money topic trending on Twitter, #PublishingPaidMe, where authors started publicly sharing their advances. Such transparency is long overdue and—in this particular case—is meant to reveal stark differences between what Black and non-Black authors get paid.

Amidst these tweets, I saw a repeated call to action for Black authors: Before you agree to a deal, ask your publisher about their marketing and promotion plans for your book. Ask how they plan to support you.

Ask, ask, ask. (Because their support falls short of where it needs to be, and publishers have to be pushed.)

To assist with that call to action, I’ve collected and expanded information from my past books and articles to help authors ask questions of their potential or existing publisher. I’ve tried to also include indicators that will help you notice and challenge unhelpful answers. If you have an…

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New “Latest”: Internet Archive to End “Emergency Library”

If you haven’t been following this issue of interest to writers, you can catch up with posts on the Internet Archive and its practice of scanning and giving away copyrighted books for free, here and here. Claiming the cover of the pandemic, the IA actually expanded its practices by eliminating limits on the amount of time “borrowers” could keep books they download and other provisions. Last week, major publishers sued the Archive, and this headline on the Internet Archive’s response to the lawsuit popped up in my New York Times feed today.

Pirate ship coming for your books
Book pirates?

Note that the decision to end the “Emergency Library” supposedly designed to increase access during lockdowns does not affect the IA’s usual practices of buying a book, then scanning it and distributing it for free.

You will need to decide on your own to what extent you want to defend your own copyrights. I was able to get my republished ebooks taken off the IA, but I found that fighting the myriad other book pirates who either have or claim to have my books available for free was a losing effort. Is Neil Gaiman right that we might as well embrace the unauthorized distribution of free books?

One wrinkle I discovered is the existence of an international protocol that does authorize the distribution of free resources to print-disabled readers by appropriately designated sites. Whether IA is one of these appropriate sites is debatable.

The Victoria Strauss posts I link to provide takedown-notice templates and other ongoing discussions of this problem. I’ve linked as well to Chuck Wendig’s statement on the IA’s practices.

Use these resources in any way that works for you. Let me know what you decide.

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Amazon Is NOT Your Publisher

I’ve also found that members of one of my writing groups struggle with this distinction between publishers, packagers, and distributors from Sarah Bolme. There’s also some great information about Amazon’s imprints. Enjoy!

Marketing Christian Books

I am surprised by the number of indie and self-published authors who tell me that the publisher of their book is Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing, or IngramSpark.

Amazon is NOT your publisher.

It is clear to me that these authors do not understand the difference between an author, a publisher, and a publishing platform.

Authors and publishers have distinct jobs. These jobs are as follows:

Author’s job:

  • Write a manuscript
  • Engage in marketing to assist sales

Publisher’s job:

  • Edit the manuscript
  • Create a cover
  • Lay out the book
  • Secure a printer
  • Assign an ISBN
  • Access distribution for sales to retail and other channels
  • Engage in marketing to ensure sales

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is neither an author or a publisher. It does not write, edit, lay out, or create a cover design for your book. What KDP offers are services.

They offer a cover design template, an ebook conversion program, printing, distribution for sales, and…

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