Jan 20 2011

Editing for Editors, or…

A Chapter A Day Keeps The Housework Away

Fiction at its best!

This fall when I was teeter-tottering between novel #2 and novel #3, I signed up for a Margie Lawson class meant solely for writers on defeating self-defeating behaviors.  But of course, it started in January when I’d already beaten the devil on my own (my devil is the television. I now do not turn it on during the day)

There is no inspiration like editor rejections with some chewable feedback.  My agent, Jason Yarn, and I had one of those agenty-authory chats about the feedback, chewed on it together, spit some of it out. (We didn’t ignore the compliments, but those don’t help you make it better!) We talked about not only what needed tweaking but how to do it, where it might work within the three-hundred pages and what was next. Lucky for me this isn’t a page-one rewrite, it’s a preening, digging, setting some new things in motion.  I worked on Chapter 1 and sent it back to Jason for his thoughts which were, in a nutshell, keep-on-going- so-we-can-get-this-puppy-back-out-to-a-new-batch-of-much-more-intelligent editors (Ok, that last part is me talking, not Jason). Jason said let’s not give them ANY reason to say no.

So, on-going I keep.

During this editing process, which will continue for another three weeks, and then again when Jason sends back my revisions for a final polish, it’s all I’m working on aside from you know, silly projects I actually get paid to work on. I intermingle it all throughout every day by setting my iPhone timer. That way I can keep my eyes off the clock.

Hence, there’s little time for baseboard dusting or furniture fluffing. Can you sense my disappointment?

I start the day with “real” work from about 6 am til 10 am.  There’s coffeeing and lunch-making and showering and carpooling in there too, but lots gets done. Then, I read the chapter du jour and highlight areas for change. I go back over the chapter and make changes. Then I usually eat lunch and read email, Facebook and any number of blogs and websites I love. I also watch TV.  Then I go back to the manuscript and reread what I changed.  It’s usually, well, not so good, which frankly baffles me because when I wrote it was genius, you know?  It’s amazing what a spicy chicken sandwich and some baked chips can do for your internal editor. I revise the revisions.  Then I probably have to tend to the dogs or read a submission or edit for a client or write an article or essay or blog post.  Or all of the above.  Later, after some afternoon snacking and time with my teenager, I go back to the chapter.  There’s always some tweaking and sometimes I have to trail backwards to make sure what I changed in Chapter 4 is consistent with Chapters 3, 2 and 1.  Then I close the doc and know that in the morning I’ll go to the next chapter. And when it’s all done I’ll re-read and fine tune the entire manuscript before emailing it to Jason.

Personally, I can’t think of a better reasons than twenty more chapters to leave the mopping ’til another day, can you?


If you’ve never heard of Margie Lawson, click here. If you’ve never heard of Jason Yarn, click here and here and here.  And if you’re really concerned that my house not get swallowed by dog fur tumbleweeds, rest easy. My dogs aren’t shedding. It’s winter!

Aug 19 2009

Reading days

In college they called them reading days.  You know, the time between classes and finals where all you did was cram study and read.

I need reading days.  Or at least one reading day because right now I’m concentrating not only my own WIP but multiple short stories and the ever evolving essays.  I’m also editing three novels for clients and a handful of short pieces there too.

So when someone asks me, what are you reading, I say a lot.  I’m almost always reading.  And though I’m lucky to like the work I do — I miss reading the book or magazine of my choice.  I miss getting lost in a story that I’m not working on – and forcing myself to get out of writer-mode into reader-mode.  I know I need to do it — I just haven’t figured out how.

I’m thinking that even though my weekends are often laden with work time  opportunities as my kids have typical teenage social lives, that I should go with an age-old premise and take a day off.

And on the seventh day, she read.  Or something like that.

We all know that reading is the one of the best ways to learn about writing (writing being the other way).  And while I learn much from every friend, foe and client that I read — I’m eager to jump into a pile of hard and softback books that are either collecting dust or languishing in a list on my iPhone.

Many of you have work that involves reading and writing that is not your own.  How do you also get to the books on your nightstand? (I don’t read at night, I fall right to sleep.)

Any suggestions?

Aug 09 2009

TV, mapquest and initials, oh my

If your book has an omnipresent narrator, he or she sees and knows all.  You know, like when you watch TV and two characters are on the phone, line down the middle of the screen.  You can see both characters, hear what they’re saying. You know what each is doing and maybe even what they’re thinking.  If you remember the show The Wonder Years, that show was from little Kevin Arnold’s POV.  We knew what he was thinking — and although we could see all the characters — we were not inside their heads.  If you had a kid who ever watched the old Disney show Lizzie McGuire, same thing.

In writing — if the reader is given access to all the knowledge and thoughts of every character — or even a few — this can be akin to head-jumping.  And it can be done.  It has been done.  But for those of us tampering with genres and trying to publish — it’s a good idea to pick a narrator, a POV, and stick with him or her.  When an author allows the reader multiple vantage points within the same book, chapter, page or even paragraph,  I liken it driving to a restaurant you went to a year ago,  only to find it’s now a dry cleaners.  You thought you knew where you were going, but you were wrong. You stop and think, “Wait, I thought there was a restaurant here.”  You go back over your directions, your memories, the last time you were there.

And if that happens when you’re reading — well if it happens to me — I stop.

My suggestion is to pick a head and stay in it — through a chapter at least.  In third person writing I find it makes the story more intimate, more palpable.  My method for making sure I stay in one character’s head — is:


What Would (your character’s name) Know?

When writing or editing  a third-person story (I find it easier in first person) this helps me stay in one person’s head.  I can’t write what he or she wouldn’t know.  I can write what they see, hear and think.  I can write whatever he or she is privy to — meaning the actions and spoken words of others, as well as the setting. No matter when I change POV’s –  within the same story — or not — this helps me make sure I’m not head-jumping when I don’t mean to — or when I really, really want to, but shouldn’t.

I’ve not written with an all-knowing narrator — have you?

How do you stay in your chosen POV?

Or…do you not?

Posted under Editing, Writing | 4 Comments »
Jun 27 2009

Points of view and a book review

I wrote a short piece of fiction last weekend based on a thought I’d have months before and a note I’d written to myself.

Note to self: Don’t forget to write this story one day.

So inspired by writers’ posts that encouraged me to stretch my writing legs in many directions – I wrote it in third person, something I never did before.  All my blog posts, personal essays and my WIP are all written in first-person.  It’s natural to me, even when it’s fiction.  But I wanted a challenge.   And in 1500 words I found I had no idea what I was doing.  I rewrote it a bunch of times before I sent it to generous, fabulous friends for critique. I graciously received amazing help from these writer-friends on my short story.  Most importantly, one told me that two of my characters were the same.  THE SAME. Crap, she was right.  I had to make them different or get rid of one.  One character – gone.  Then, another friend told me to decide whose head I’m in.  Truly?  Truly.  So I decided who was telling the story – and no – it wasn’t me.  Lastly, I was given tips on how to make it more realistic and believable.

And I went back to work with one fewer character and living in someone else’s head.

Ah, the life of a writer.

That being said – it was a fabulous exercise for me – and I one day, maybe, sometime in the future, I might give that third-person thing a try again.  Or not.

So this past week when I read a pre-publication date copy (that I received free) of The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand, I was impressed.  She has third person thing down-pat as this novel is told from six different perspectives.  SIX!  Hilderbrand is in six heads in this book and it works – although it took me a while to learn the characters – once I did – it was easy to dig deep into each of them, to understand the separate histories and motivations and follow along.

I thought, based on the cover that shows a beach and sky and legs that I’d be dipping into women’s fiction or chick lit.

Not so much.  It’s a mystery.  Who knew?  That’s what I get for reading the first page first instead of the inside-cover copy or asking any questions about the book.  So much for the Journalism degree.

The Castaways – as they call themselves – are a group of friends on Nantucket, each who internalize and take the blame for the sudden death of two of their own.  When these friends die during an anniversary celebration sail, the other six friends submerge as well — into own personal hells.  In alternating chapters each character unravels their linked pasts and relationships with the deceased and comes to terms with the present.

The ending wraps everything up nicely but is not staid or predictable.  The mystery is solved and I found that satisfying — while normally I don’t need all my bits in a box at the end of a novel, I guess the point of a mystery is to solve it!

There’s a lot to keep track of – but it’s worth the effort.  It’s a mystery in solving the death — but it’s really the story of friendships and of trusting yourself and the people you love.

As a reader it kept me coming back night after night – and as a writer it will one day inspire me to give ‘that third person thing’ another try.

Jun 16 2009

Personal feedback is not meant to be taken personally

Last week I left feedback on a writing site — where writers posted their work soley for the purpose of getting feedback.

They only posted short excerpts, so this was merely an exercise in “are you hooked?”  and “would you keep reading?”

Now granted, I tend not to grant a lot of leeway.  Even in published work I question what I consider to be glitches and mediocre starts.  So what am I to think if someone posts something for feedback and I have ample questions and would not keep reading if it were indeed in my slush pile or on my bedside table.  But this exercise was for helping writers – if I wasn’t hooked it was my job to say why so perhaps a writer would see his or her work from a new perspective.  Comments included all kinds of lengthy suggestions — wording, phrasing, pace and language.  For one particular entry I commented on some wording that evoked an odd image in my mind.  To me it did not work.  TO ME.  The words did not make sense.  TO ME.  And that’s what I said.  That the noun and verb jumped out at me as ones that did not go together.

I, in no way, ordered the writer to change them.  I’m not a publishing professional and cannot determine what will and will not be published.  I am an editor, and if this was my client I would question this choice of words and ask for clarification.  I’d suggest trying something else.

I did not leave that feedback so that the writer would send me an email (and I had no idea what it was about, or who this person was, until I realized the odd combo of words) to declare that while this person had a lot to learn about writing — he or she knew everything about that topic and NOUNS do VERB.

I deleted the email, feeling sorry for the writer.

Nothing personal, writer.  It was my opinion.  I’m a smart cookie and chances are if it didn’t make sense to me there might be someone else who doesn’t get it.  Just because it makes sense to you doesn’t mean it is the right choice of words.  It doesn’t mean it’s wrong – except for me.  It was a virtual ‘no they don’t – oh yes they do’ that I was not/am not willing to get into.

I don’t know this person – don’t care if he or she changes the words, writes or publishes.  I had nothing vested.  I offer feedback to strangers on websites as a way to hone my own skills and maybe help someone along the way.   I’ve edited a lot of stories and essays and novel excerpts — so I know that I can be helpful.

I assume this was a novice writer who just took it too personally.  This might be the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel and it might be that I was way off base and that NOUNS do indeed VERB.  But to me, it’s an image that doesn’t work — and that won’t change.

It was my opinion.

Nothing personal – except to me.

Apr 07 2009

Passive voice = passé

My blog friend Debbie reminded me how much I love Stephen King’s On Writing, and remembering that, I recalled having posted some writing advice from said writing guru.  You can watch that video here.

* * *

One of my favorite parts of King’s book is when he moves his desk out of the middle of his office to a place against the wall, noting that the world doesn’t revolve around him and that he didn’t need to sit there and wait for the stories to pop into his head, that the stories are all out there and he needed to go get them.

He pursues his stories.

King is adamant in his opinion of using active vs. passive voice and in the editing I’ve done for several writers, I’d say that this is the snafu even the best and most seasoned writers run into from time to time.  In novices it’s lack of experience and in experienced writers it can be just a lapse, the failure to re-read and catch something – which is why it’s always good to have more eyes on your work than just your own.

So why is active better than passive?  In life it’s always better to do than not do.

For example:

The entrance exam was failed by half the students.

It makes sense, right?  Of course it does.  But it’s passive.  Think of passive as passé.  And while the adjective passé means out-of-style — the noun passé means an attack (in fencing) that doesn’t hit the target.

And as writers we want to hit our targets — we want our words to be sharp, our thoughts concise, our sentences well-structured.  It doesn’t mean there is no creative license.  It doesn’t mean there no exceptions to the rule.  It does mean you should try your passive sentences in an active voice to make sure it doesn’t serve your story – and your reader – better.

For example, let’s take those same students again:

Half the students failed the entrance exam.

Ah, much better.  It means the same thing but ‘the students failed’ is active while ‘the exam was failed’ is passive.

I am a visual learner, so I picture things in my mind.  Can I picture – truly picture – ‘the exam was failed?’  That makes the exam the subject of the sentence.  Can I picture – truly picture – ‘the students failed?’  Yes I can.  It’s a clear-cut roadmap to the meaning, while the passive version is more of a roundabout way of saying it.

I think for many of us it’s a habit.  When I write quickly – or blog – I use passive voice.  No crime in being passé in rough drafts or online.  But not in a finished, polished piece of writing.

Here’s a list of passive verbs to watch out for in your writing.

will be
will have been
has been
had been
would have been
to be

Here are some other passé verbs worth looking out for:

acts as

Is this an issue in your writing?  Any suggestions for how to catch those pesky passive verbs aside from using the search function in Word (which I adore)…let us know!

Posted under Editing, Writing | 12 Comments »
Apr 02 2009


If you haven’t seen the Bookends blog lately, there are over 200 comments to their response to the Twitter disaster/phenomenon known as #QueryFail.

Been under a publishing rock?  #Queryfail was the brainchild (or brain fart, depending on your POV) of a Tweeting literary agent.  Other agents signed up and they gave live examples of queries on Twitter and said why they “failed.”  Hence, QueryFail.  The “#” is the way you follow a thread on Twitter.

#QueryFail got tons of negative attention — people saying how agents were blasting poor writers for stupid queries and doing it on the www.  For me I thought it was like preaching to the choir — because the writers on Twitter and reading all the blogs were not the ones making absurd queries and requests.  I believe if you don’t like it, don’t read it.  BUT, people were appalled.  Writers were screaming (virtually of course).

So now there’s a place writers can say all the awful things about agents they want to say.  And I have to tell you that most of them are pretty darned awful.  Not surprisingly, the comments are anonymous and no one is naming particular agents — just referring to “this agent” and “that agent.”  Personally, I’d like to know who this and that are — so I can one day go into the query process with my eyes wide open.  I know there are sites that offer warnings — but this would seem like a fabulous opportunity for writers to out the agents who were rude and made a writer cry at a conference (I saw that several times in the 200 comments), the agents who were drunk and unprofessional (yep, saw that too) and the ones that hold manuscripts for months on end and the ones who consistently lose emails containing fulls and partials.

It’s a bitch session over there, and I feel like it’s a blind one – giving lots of crap without cleaning it up – meaning – there is no substantial information and no way to clean it up or change it.

That being said, I’m going to go back and read more.

Mar 18 2009

On arcs and words

In this editing and revision process, I do a lot more pondering than I do during the writing process, even in the rewriting process, which makes it no wonder that I’ve gladly stepped away from the computer each night to the world of reality television. No. Thinking. Required.

LurkerMonkey mentioned yesterday that first drafts just flow and how so little of them is left in the end.  To me it’s the foundation that no one sees, like the foundation for a house.  But if it cracks, isn’t built right, isn’t strong enough — or if the earth shifts — it’s just not going to hold up the house.  Even if your second/third/eleventh draft doesn’t resemble your first, those first notions and thoughts were what they were built upon – or what was carted away so that it could be rebuilt.

On Nathan Bransford’s blog yesterday he wrote about writing, which was really cool for an agent to do.  And the stark reminder about character arcs and that each character must want something, always (even if it is a glass of water, according to Kurt Vonnegut) made me think some more.

I thought about each character, his or her motivation.  What he or she wants in general, in each chapter, in each scene.  My comments on Bransford’s blog said something to the tune of remembering that we needn’t – we shouldn’t – say what the needs or wants are of our characters.  We have to show them.  It can be sublte and should be woven into the story.  And arcs can come to a close.  Motivations can change. Or I really hope they can!

There is one secondary character in my story who is happy and appears suburban-perfect down to her Lilly Pulitzer wardrobe.  She wants to maintain that appearance and does so by dodging conflict (even though it’s all around her) and she always pointing out the bright side to her more sarcastic, realistic friends.  Throughout the story she works very hard at her image and maintains it UNTIL something happens and it’s time to tear down the wall.  Her motivation changes.  She wants someone to do something — and the only way to do that is to reveal secrets that clash with her persona.  Her motivation switches at that point — from wanting to protect herself to wanting to do “what’s right” — within limits.  Those limits are pushed, but in the end she gets what she wants – her rightful place back with her friend to whom she revealed a secret and the knowledge that she is who she claimed to be, no matter what.

See why my head hurts?  I’m doing this with every character, because these revisions take me deeper into their orbits – and the main character is not always the sun.  We may think she is, but those arcs reveal little worlds and stories unto themselves.

And if that wasn’t enough — I learned a new word on Bransford’s blog yesterday: nadir. It means “the lowest point.”

So think about it…characters should always want something, and their motivation should drive not only their own arc but the storyline in general. If you could drop it and not alter the story, does it belong there? I say not. What do you say?

Feb 19 2009

Wading through feedback

Most of you know I sent my manuscript to a freelance editor, who in turn told me to call it a “fiction novel.”

I’m over it.

This person could have offered me cold hard cash to call it a fiction novel, I’d sooner call it a cheesesteak than a fiction novel, but that’s just me. And yes, I know, that no matter what I call it if it’s good it’s good and if it sucks it sucks.

So I just want to explain how everything in my life goes back to listening to my own instincts. You know, those quiet thoughts that pass through your head when you’re sort of not paying attention. As my best friend will attest, I’m smart but I’m not always queen-of-the-comeback. It takes time for me to process information and to think of something to say. Which is very much in sync with the fact that I’m a thinker. At times in the past something has happened and I’ve thought — “I knew that was going to happen.” Then I remember the inkling or feeling or thought or vision that ran through my body or mind and how, had I actually stopped and paid attention, I actually had more information than I thought I did. In the past 7 years I’ve gotten better at this. I listen and process these inklings and thoughts. Or that’s my intention.

Yesterday when I read the “introductory” email and report from this editor I hired, my initial reaction (after the first paragraph) was that it sounded like a form letter. It was well-disguised, but not well enough. It was not a good first impression of the product I had received via email. But I continued. The feedback made some suggestions that could possibly make sense. Other bits of feedback made no sense. And I enjoy and welcome feedback – good, solid, rip-it-apart-start-over-again feedback. The feedback was often contradictory. A relationship that made no sense to the editor on one of the feedback pages, was noted for being very well-developed on the next. A person the editor noted should be the mc’s romantic interest, is indeed so.

And then I came to the part where calling the book a “fiction novel” in my query was strongly suggested. And I felt like I had the second half of that set of bad-vibe bookends.

So when in an email from my friend Christina, she said, “she’s trying to put your book into too much of a formula,” I knew she was right.

Formula. Form letter. I felt that right from the get-go, didn’t I?

While the feedback appeared highly personalized with corresponding page numbers and characters’ names and places, it was mostly generic stuff. Some of it made sense, and I will read and reread those parts to make sure that what I want to say is really being said.

I feel fortunate to have used this editor in a way. I’ll wade through the comments and suggestions and it will make me use all my writer common sense and savvy to decide not only what works for me, but what doesn’t — and why it doesn’t. The nail in the editorial coffin was that this person rewrote the first lines of my novel — and they were not good. And it’s not subjective. I know when someone improves my work. I love that like Pop Tarts.

I’m open to changing those lines, of course, when the editor who’s publishing my book demands it.

My blog made it onto Alltop.  It’s at the bottom, but still on Alltop.  I know it’s a good thing, right?  I’m there with other writing bloggers and maybe more cool writing bloggers will find their way here and join in on the rip-roaring good time we’re all having.

Feb 10 2009

In toto

I sent my ms to an editor.  In toto. I was banging my head against a virtual wall, wishing I could lay all 200-some pages out in row so I could see the whole thing.  In toto. I needed perspective — and not my own.  So while this is not the final, end-all-be-all version, I’m secure that I’ll be able to do a better job when I have someone else’s opinion on the arc and flow, the characters and the plot, the language and the tone.  I have kickin’ CPs — but we work together chapter by chapter.  And while we do remember and recall inconsistencies in characterization and storyline (my CP Christina is awesome at that) I want to know now if Chapter 1 makes sense with Chapter 8 and if the character changes I’ve made are worthwhile.  We’re all too close to it now, I think.  So, I stepped away — and farther away than just giving myself the weekend off.

It’s almost like getting a babysitter for kids.  I’m wondering how the story is doing with someone else.  Is she taking good care of it?   Are my characters being understood?  Did I make the right decision?  I can surely undo any damage later, right?  So what if my manuscript stays up too late – or eats pizza?

But you know what?  I’m also able to relax. Maybe not in toto, but I’ll take what I can get.