Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Common Errors #23: That's Not How It Happened

Sometimes authors dig in their heels and resist editorial direction, even when they agree the suggested change would make it a better story. Then why not make the change? Occasionally, they'll admit they just don't feel the piece is worth the additional effort— fair, it's their story/book. Usually, however, their reluctance to make any changes is, "that's not the way it happened."

Drawing on their own life experience, they've written this scene or that character down exactly as it was in real life, just adapted so it's now set in the old West, or Space Station 29, or whatever. They forget that they are writing fiction, not memoir or autobiography. Whatever meaning that scene had in their own life, however great a resource for generating ideas and engaging their senses, such experiences cannot be incorporated too literally. We get to change things in fiction. Have to, really, if we want it to make sense in the context of the new story that's being written. It's not about capturing reality, it's about understanding what meaning the scene could have for the reader.

Or, sometimes the scene is entirely fictional, but that's the way the author pictured it doing their first draft and so that's the way it has to be. This one usually manifests as 'bloat': the scene may be off message or completely unnecessary, but cutting it strikes the author as a betrayal of the vision. That's okay for the first draft, and maybe even the second, but by the third draft it's not about your needs, it's about what the story needs. As one author put it, the first draft is 10% the book, and 90% the author (i.e., about the author's ego), draft five is 50% author and 50% the book, and it takes to draft 10 before it's 100% about the book. If the editor says a scene has to go for the story to remain on message or to skip over the boring bits, listen to the editor.

Of course, one can go too far the other direction, fictionalizing what actually happened so that it becomes not just unrealistic but outright self-indulgent. Sometimes, recalling what that bastard said to you at that party that time, and editing that scene so the "what I should have said" reply you thought of two days later becomes instantaneous clever repartee in the book, works. Maybe that traumatic experience can be rewritten in your novel to include a suitable revenge scene that provides catharsis for readers with similar traumas. But, um, you can see how constantly rewriting life to be perfect can easily go off the rails so that as the hero of your own story, the protagonist is too clever, too powerful, too lucky.

That's why one has editors. If the editor says, "I love your protagonist's repartee", you're good. But if they say, "Really?" then maybe go back to having the hero embarrassed, deflated, and beating a hasty retreat—the way it happened.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Do You Keep Writing? Three Lessons
by Lauren B. Davis

Guest Post. Lauren B.Davis is a critically acclaimed Canadian writer. Her latest novel is The Grimoire of Kensington Market from Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (ISBN13: 978-1928088707)

Every day I hear from writers who tell me how impossible it is to keep going, how they are broken by this ‘business’ and they see no reason to continue. Often this means they see no reason to continue living, since being a writer/creator/artist is so deeply embedded in the soul as the archetype by which we make meaning in our lives. Without it, the world crumbles.

I understand.

I also understand that hearing these words from someone who has had a modest amount of success as a writer might ring hollow. Easy for me to say, right?

No, not easy. Hard won.

I didn’t publish until I was over forty. So there’s that. All the young people who think if they haven’t published yet, let alone won the Booker or the Pulitzer or the Giller indicates they will never have fulfilling lives as writers are just plain wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

How do I break this down?

I dance. The Bear watches. Maybe that’s not the widest audience, by he is the Bear of my Soul.

First, almost no published writer wins prizes. This has nothing to do with the quality of your work. If that’s what you’re hoping for you are setting yourself up for unending disappointment, based on the entirely unpredictable, arbitrary, often political whims of a tiny group of people you might not even like, or respect. I know people who’ve won these prizes. They had some fun for a while and then, well, life went on. I’ve been on prize committees, and trust me, try as we might vote for the BEST BOOK EVER, it generally doesn’t turn out that way.

Lesson 1) …take care of your LIFE first, for it’s all you’ve got, and your life is not about winning prizes. It’s about where your feet are, at this moment. The writing life is a metaphor for being in co-creation with the Source-Of-All, if you know what I mean. So, right now, jot down five things you value about your life that have nothing to do with prizes… lovers, ice cream, dogs who sleep on the bed, growing tomatoes, making snow angels, creme brulee, the smell of roses after a rain… come on, you can do it.

Second, almost no one publishes, and for those who do, it is as much the luck of timing, relevance, and politics, as it is talent. By which I mean, a lot of really great books never see the light of a bookstore window. How many books (both good and bad) come out in any season? It’s insane. Especially with self-publishing (but that’s another blog). Why am I telling you this? Because it’s true, but also because publishing doesn’t necessarily mean success. Sure it’s nice and I’m glad I’m published, but the truth is that even though I have, for a moment or two, poked my head above the turbulent waves, ultimately I sank out of sight again, while Atwood and Winterson and Franzen and a thousand other writers rose to the tip of the swell. Maybe they’re better writers than I. Fair enough. Might be. So what?

Lesson…2) See lesson 1.

Third…maybe you and I will never publish, let alone win prizes. Maybe we’ll never publish again, let alone win prizes. Maybe we’ll be dumped by a publisher we thought had our backs. that happened to me. Should we keep writing? Should we? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t please us any longer. Maybe it doesn’t bring us sanity or joy or satisfaction. If those things are true then, hell, I’m done. I’ll save feral cats and abused dogs. I’ll garden. I’ll work for environmental protection and for justice…you know, all the thousand things that make the world better. Not that we can’t do these things while writing, we can and many of us do, but if writing isn’t doing it for us, isn’t filling our souls, isn’t inviting us to surrender to the purpose our souls have for us, then for the love of what-ever-we-find-holy, let’s not do it!

However.

If, when we sit down in front of the computer, or the page, we feel our hearts filling, our spirits settling; if we feel the top of our heads opening and something entering us and wanting to be born, without expectation; if we feel ourselves filled with the wonder of this story’s becoming, this image’s becoming, and if after we have written 500 words or 1,000 for the day we feel elated and elevated and full of satisfaction and peace… then come on, let’s DO that.

Lesson 3… see Lesson 1 and 2 above.

What do you think? Shall we keep creating? Keep writing? Or is there another way you’d like to walk through the world? Tell me.

Reprinted from The Lauren B. Davis blog with permission of the author.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Ten Points About Flash Fiction

A colleague recently asked me to tell him about flash fiction. His writing group's next meeting was going to be about flash and he wanted some background beforehand. "You're the only person I know who has published flash, so what can you tell me?"

Here's my answer:

  1. There are more flash markets than one might think. I've compiled a list of about 50 for myself, but that doesn't include genres I'm not interested in.
  2. Each market defines flash differently (or publishes a different kind of flash, if you prefer). Everyone agrees it's no more than 1500 words, but I've seen 42 words, 50 words, 100 words (which is called a Drabble and has to be exactly 100 words) 140 words (the old Twitter limit) 500 words, 1200 and 1500. Titles are not usually counted, but editors will reject long titles, especially for shorter forms of flash, if they think you're trying to sneak in extra words. On the other hand, a carefully chosen title can orient the reader, suggest an interpretation, and carry a lot of the significance of a flash piece, though of course, that's true of any story title.
  3. It's easier for an editor to take a risk on a new author if the story is 500 words than if it's 5,000. As a subscriber, if I don't like the ending of a 500-word story, I think, "Well, that was a dumb ending", shrug, and move on. No harm done. But if I've read through a 5,000-word story and think, "Well, that was dumb" I might not buy the next issue of that magazine. Why would an editor risk the space for 9,000 words if they can fit in two 4500-word stories—thereby doubling the number of authors in the magazine and on the cover, or eight flash fiction pieces and therefore 8 more sales to authors' mothers? Shorter is generally better if you're trying to break into a market.
  4. Flash doesn't pay a lot. I've seen the occasional contest for $1000, which would definitely be worth it, but we're never going to win that contest, so I don't think that counts. Most markets pay a flat rate of $5 or $25 or at most $50, but that's rare. A few markets claim to pay "professional rates", but they mean 8 cents a word, so at 50 words, that's only $4.00. Given that flash takes as much or more work than a longer short story, return on effort is low. Therefore, many flash markets (like many poetry markets) don't bother with token payments and are simply non-paying.
  5. For many authors, the primary motivation for writing flash is for the challenge of the format (like writing haiku).
  6. Some authors like writing flash because it inflates the number of publications to list in their bios. Again, good flash takes probably takes as long or longer to write as a regular short story, but it may be easier to collect acceptances (see #3, above).
  7. My motivation for writing flash—and why I recommend it to many of my clients—is to learn how to tighten my writing. I am frequently told that my style is too "flowery" or "verbose" and that I need to "tighten" it up. I was never clear what "tightening your writing up" meant until I started writing flash. Writing flash forces you to be more focused, to cut down to the essentials. It teaches you which words can be cut out without any loss of information, what can be implied without being stated, which details you don't need, and so on. I was then able to take those lessons back to my novel writing and really pare down my bloated manuscript to something readable.

    [I'm not, of course, suggesting that all authors need to "tighten up". I have to encourage some clients to expand their abbreviated manuscripts, fill in a little more color commentary, broaden their brush strokes. The point of undertaking flash as a writing exercise is simply to acquire and refine that skill for those who need to develop it and for when it needs to be applied. It's just one tool in the writer's toolbox. Action scenes can probably benefit from tight, staccato writing, but rich description may be in order for another scene in the same manuscript. Knowing how to successfully condense writing, as poets must, is just one of many useful writing skills.]

  8. Ploter vs. Pantser applies to flash, same as any writing. Some people need to outline to make sure their flash is an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Others just start writing to see what comes out, which is fine, as long as you then go back to edit with "beginning, middle and end" as a checklist. Most flash markets complain that they get too many submissions that are just pieces of description or mood pieces or a chunk of dialog, and so on, with no actual story. Fitting the story into 140 words (or whatever) is the challenge. Reading successful flash where others have managed to crame a story into a drabble (or even shorter) is the best way of knowing it can be done, which is the first step in doing it yourself.
  9. Some story ideas are clever but cannot sustain 3000 words. If the idea is the story, then it needs to be flash. Trying to flesh out an idea with redundant characterization and action just makes for a weak story where those things are a distraction rather than a strength. Mini-prose seems to be the better format for idea-stories.
  10. Flash is prose poetry. Same density of words/thought. Same level of difficulty. Same mastery of language. But it doesn't have to rhyme and it doesn't have to have meter and it doesn't require metaphor or etc. I don't "get" poetry myself—I'm too literal-minded and dysgraphia is apparently associated with an inability to do meter. So...flash is a workable alternative to poetry for me.

The truth is, I probably never would have considered writing flash if Karen Schauber hadn't reached out to me to write for her The Group of Seven Reimanged: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings. Karen helped edit my first flash story and got me hooked. I'm not sure I would have succeeded without her coaching. Watching her take out words from my draft to make room for new words where they were needed to clarify, or take out whole lines (subplots), etc. really taught me how this works. Finding a writers group that does flash (like Vancouver's Flash Fiction group) is likely very helpful to anyone setting out to write it.

You can read two examples of my flash fiction free online in Active Voice and at Drabble.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Editing Graduate Students

An excellent article by a respected academic editor, Mary Rykov, in University Affairs on university perceptions of editors and editing, and why it's generally completely wrong-headed. The Dog Ate My Homework Syndrome and other Tales From an Academic Editor

The one point I would add to her excellent list of points at the conclusion of the essay is the statistic that 50% of those starting a thesis or dissertation fail to complete because they have not been taught how to manage the writing process. Professors make the (understandable) mistake of assuming that writing skills = literacy, when literacy is merely a necessary but not sufficient factor. Being able to write a brilliant term paper does not give one the skills necessary to undertake a sustained writing project, such as a thesis or dissertation. Coaching in how to handle sustained writing would see 85% of that current 50% incomplete rate graduate successfully. It is appalling to me that while students are given at least one and usually multiple courses on research methods, almost no one provides courses in thesis /dissertation writing. Howard Becker identified the problem in the early 1960s, but almost no one has paid any attention, with the result that 50% (in some disciplines, closer to 65%) never finish, even after paying tuition and foregoing income etc and working themselves into nervous wrecks for up to 9 years. A 50% failure rate is obviously a structural, systemic problem (either terrible recruitment screening or a failure to give students the tools they need to succeed) but universities have simply shrugged this off as having 'high standards' Baloney. And this isn't about second language or learning disabilities or any of that--it's because universities train people how to write first draft term papers, not how to rewrite their way through multiple drafts of a thesis.

If you're interested in this topic at all, I have a 32-page Guide to Thesis Writing Strategies that describes the problem in detail.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

H. G. Wells on Editing

Australia Makes Editing Student Work Illegal

I've just read that Australia has passed a law with fines of $250,000 and/or two years in jail for anyone editing a student paper. This makes my brain hurt.

I completely understand that one wants to stop rich students from hiring someone to write their papers for them, and I understand that there is a thin line between 'editing' and 'rewriting'. But the law banning editing is stunningly stupid for several reasons:

First, it's not going to slow cheaters at all. It just means they have to outsource their papers to paper factories outside of Australia--you can't fine or jail a guy in India or Philippines, so how is banning local editors addressing the problem?

Second, besides being unenforceable, the law is fundamentally discriminatory. The ability to write academically is a learned skill, but some students are disadvantaged by speaking a different dialect even if 'native speakers'. Undergraduates from impoverished, ethnic minority, immigrant, etc household are clearly discriminated against by the demand that students write in a certain style with which they have not been raised.

Third, the fiction that students are taught these skills in undergraduate courses is rubbish. I do have colleagues who spend time developing their students' writing skills, but these individuals are few and far between. The vast majority of the professoriate have little training in pedagogy let alone in the subtle and difficult skill of teaching writing. Although some take some interest in learning how to teach their particular discipline, most have little interest and take no responsibility for teaching writing, not even the writing skills specific to their discipline. When I challenge these individuals they inevitably say, "The students should have those skills when they show up in my class, it's not my job to teach them how to write." For the flaw in the argument that these skills are a pre-requisite for which the professorate has no responsibility, see #2 above.

Fourth, since few professors are prepared by training or motivation to teach writing skills, how exactly are students supposed to learn them? If it is proposed that helping students learn how to write by editing their papers with them be made illegal, what you are really saying is that it is illegal to help students from the working classes, ethnic minorities, and so on, succeed. Whatever the initial intent (which may have been to stop cheating) the actual impact of such legislation is the suppression of social mobility.

Fifth, as a former prof and now editor, I do a lot of thesis rescue work. Supervisors approach me to help their students with the writing process, saying that their student's research is fine, but they are struggling with the writing process. When I was a prof, they would bring me on as a committee member to help the students learn how to write, like other committee members contributed their expertise in methodology or stats or whatever. Now that I'm retired, they send the students to me as an editor, trusting me not to write the paper for the student, but rather to tutor them on how to do it. I'm very good at teaching graduate students how to manage the writing process, whereas their supervisors often are not. Why should it be illegal to delegate a task the supervisor does not want to do, and is not trained for, to another professional who is trained and is prepared to do it? Ideally, such instructors should be provided by the university, but generally, they are not. I would, therefore, argue that any legislation regulating editing has to allow for tutoring, and specify the permission process/documentation to ensure this doesn't devolve into cheating. The Editors Association of Canada, for example, has a set of guidelines for the ethical editing of student texts that clearly sets out the limits of what can be done and the process for obtaining instructor/advisor permission and transparency.

Sixth,(in North America, at least, though I assume it's the same in Australia) roughly 50% of graduate students fail out of their thesis and dissertations programs—in some programs, it's as high as 75% of thesis-route students. That figure has remained stable since the 1950s. If people failed out in their first two semesters, then fine, the program wasn't for them. But 85% of these failures come after 8 and 9 semesters--i.e., as the student sits down to do their thesis. Withdrawing after sometimes 7 or 8 years of paying tuition, of foregone earnings, of investing their self-image in academe, such failures are personally traumatic and an economic drain on the system. So--either the professoriate is spectacularly bad at recruitment and selection of grad students, or there is a systematic failure to teach students how to successfully manage the thesis-writing process. Making it ILLEGAL to help students learn the skills that would allow them to complete their masters or dissertation is either insane or part of a deliberate policy of labour market manipulation and subsidizing university costs. I always prefer to assume incompetence rather than conspiracy, but the fact that legislators and university administrators continue to ignore 40 years of research on this topic does make me wonder.

More and more Canadian universities are adopting anti-editing policies. Most have based their policies on the Editor Canada guidelines, but others are more restrictive. I hope the trend doesn't continue so far as provincial legislation. Such laws are unenforceable and would only have the effect of maintaining or increasing the suppression of able members of discriminated against populations, particularly the working class.

(My paper on thesis writing strategies which--based on the work of Howard Becker--explains why 50% of graduate students fail, is here: http://www.essentialedits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf The appendix lays out the research on failure rates.)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Common Errors #22: Mistakes When Submitting to a Publisher: Cover Letters and Synopses

Great interview with Sandra Kasturi, Co-Publisher, ChiZine Publications, on Jim Harrington's excellent Six Questions for..." blog. I particularly loved the discussion of cover letters and synopses (answer to question #3) which is the clearest statement of the typical errors people make and the clearest direction for how to do them properly I have yet read. http://sixquestionsfor.blogspot.com/2010/07/six-questions-for-sandra-kasturi-co.html

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Common Errors #21 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Copy Editing

Once the final draft of the manuscript is approved, it goes for copy-editing. There would be little point copy-editing the initial draft, as whole sections are likely to disappear and entirely new sections appear during developmental edits, so no one is going to pay $60 an hour to keep re-copy editing the same manuscript. Copy editors catch typos, spelling and grammar errors, inconsistencies, and so on.  It is a highly technical skill, takes a certain personality, and is often underrated. A typical example: I used 'global change' to change a character in one of my stories, but unknowingly had Word set to "changes from here down" rather than "all document" so that a minor character was one name in the first scene, and a different name four scenes later. Which, understandably, caused some confusion until caught by the copy editor.

The need for copy-editing is obvious; less obvious is that copyediting is not a substitute for development editing. Beginning authors who arrange to have their manuscripts 'edited' before submitting to a publisher, or self-publishing, need to be clear on whether they are hiring a copy editor or a development/structural editor.  Freelance development editors (often marketing themselves as "writing coaches") can often be very helpful in identifying problem areas; over-coming writer's block; pushing authors to go deeper, to up their game; and turning initial drafts into submission-ready drafts. Copy editors can help authors avoid embarrassing typos and inconsistencies, but it is not their job to tamper with the manuscript's content.

Knowing which service one is contracting for is therefore crucial. When I was an acquisition editor at a small press, I several times had authors telling me they had paid thousands to have their manuscript edited before submission, but when I looked at it, the manuscript made no sense. Of course, the "editor" they had hired was a copy editor, who therefore hadn't pointed out that giant ants, say, are a non-starter, but simply tidied up whatever they had been handed. Heartbreaking, but it happens a lot. To educate yourself on the different types of editors and what each does, read the Editor's Canada definitions of professional skills here: https://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions-editorial-skills

Trends

Finally, there are a couple of trends in publishing that should be noted here. First, publishers at all levels are doing a lot less editing than they used to. Most of the major players let go between 30-40% of their remaining editorial staff during the 2008 recession, and there is no reason to expect any of them to rehire to the same levels in the future. The heavy concentration of publishing into a very few houses has created a situation where there are so many authors submitting to the same six surviving SF imprints, for example, that the majors can simply take the top 1% that need almost no development and reject the rest. Indeed, very few publishers these days have the patience to develop new talent, and simply do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, the slush pile has largely been outsourced to agents, who perforce have taken on the role of development editor. That even makes a kind of sense, given that most of the new agents on the market (and therefore the ones willing to accept new clients) are the very editors laid off from the major publishing houses. Same people doing the same job, the difference being that now their salaries are being paid by the writers, rather than by the publishers....

Second, copy-editing and proofreading have been partially eliminated as steps in the process by the change from hot lead typesetting to digital. Certainly, many small presses (and almost all self-publishers) simply take the author's digital submission and run it through a software package to turn it into the printed book. Given the expectation that authors will have already run spell and grammar checks on the document, the need to pay someone $60 an hour to go through checking for minor glitches is now sometimes seen as redundant. This is a wrong idea, of course, as is obvious whenever one runs across a book that hasn't benefitted from the attention of a good copy editor.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy-part-2.html

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On Writing Collaborations with Family Members

EssentialEdits.ca editor Halli Lilburn has an article on collaborating with her daughter, Eartha, on a novel. Halli talks about how the project was a way to bond and to produce a unique manuscript which is greater than the sum of their singular contributions. The article was published in the Dec-Oct, 2019 issue of WestWord, the magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta.

Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings

I like to update when EssentialEdits.ca editors get things published.

I was therefore pleased to receive my copy of The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Paintings, which includes my story "Iceberg" inspired by the Lawren S. Harris painting "Icebergs, Davis Strait", 1930 (shown above). Honoured to have a story included in this magnificent collection: my first piece of flash fiction and my first appearance in an art book! Thanks to editor Karen Schauber for conceiving and sheparding this audacious project to its successful culmination, and especially for her help in shaping my own entry. (Even editors need and greatly benefit from editors!)

The book is available from Heritage House press https://www.heritagehouse.ca/book/the-group-of-seven-reimagined/

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Common Errors #20 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Structural Editing (Part II)

In Part I, I discussed the first reason there are always structural edits, even on a perfect manuscript. We continue here with Part II.

Second, editors are going to ask for changes because—well, because they're editors. Playwrights understand that no matter how brilliant the words they put on paper, how detailed their stage directions, the play's director is going to have a major impact on the interpretation that audiences ultimately see. So it is with editors. This is not to suggest that editors will insist on making changes where none are needed, but simply that authors&msash;particularly beginning authors—should start from the understanding that this is a partnership, and so allow some space for input from their (senior) partner.

Three important observations: First, just as it is to be expected that one's editor will suggest or demand certain changes, it is natural that one's first reaction to these revisions is to have a minor meltdown. I have yet to receive something back from an editor that I didn't (initially) regard as ridiculous suggestions that would undermine the entire point of the piece. I always begin by complaining to my wife and colleagues about the morons with whom I have to contend; if, that is, I can get a word in edgewise, as they complain about their editors and referees in turn. That's all just a normal part of the process. Because, let's face it, we are all of us really lazy and absolutely hate having to do revisions. Just once I would like an editor to tell me, "Hey, that was perfect! I can't think of a single thing to change!" but it is never going to happen.

Usually, about the fifth time I read the comments through I start to grudgingly confess that there is maybe the remote possibility that this or that suggestion might, in fact, have identified something that could be worked on a bit. As the deadline approaches, I roll up my sleeves and actually try to rewrite the offending passage, a struggle that requires me to throw out my previously written words: an act in my mind akin to abandoning a child. In the end, however, as I rewrite this bit or that from the new perspective of the 'mistaken reading' by editor or referees, I come to realize that the new version is actually quite an improvement. Indeed, having completed the new draft, I generally wince when I look back at the previous version, and shake my head to think I ever felt it ready to go out.

The key here is: NEVER EVER respond to editorial suggestions the same day (probably not even the same week) as one receives them. One needs time to absorb what the editor is actually saying, to work through the emotionality of even this partial rejection, and to start seeing the possibilities arising out of the editor's feedback. That first day, one should simply acknowledge receipt of the comments and promise to attend to them in the immediate future. That's it. If some comments need to be resisted, resist them later when one is calmer; and one has already made the other x number of suggested changes—which demonstrates that one is open to change, is reasonable, flexible, and merely raising the possibility that perhaps -- in this one instance—there may be good reason to go another route than with the editor's recommendation. Such an approach is far more likely to be successful than the incoherent rant that is likely one's initial, instinctual response.

The second point here is that one needs to choose one's battles carefully. Sometimes one needs to say 'no' to development editors (or agents and publishers) if the changes they are insisting on are inappropriate -- the recent controversies over authors being asked to change characters from gay to straight or black to white come to mind. Most publishers would not hold these principled refusals against the author, though they may well choose (for purely commercial reasons) not to continue with publication of that particular manuscript. On the other hand, authors who endlessly debate every little change, who refuse to budge on any suggested revision, quickly acquire the reputation as "difficult to work with". And then one's career is over. With hundreds of equally competent manuscripts vying for the six or eight available slots in an imprint's monthly publishing schedule, there is no need for a publisher to invest time and effort in a difficult or unresponsive author. Eventually, even megastars like Charlie Sheen get fired if they are sufficiently unprofessional. One may even win the battles over a particular manuscript, but then lose the war if the publisher decides not to bother accepting future submissions.

If one feels the need to retain complete and utter control over every aspect of one's writing, the only viable solution is to self-publish; with the obvious perils that without development editing, one's ego may quickly outdistance one's competence.

Third, developmental editing is an iterative process. One submits the initial manuscript; the editor provides detailed feedback; one resubmits with the required revisions, and perhaps the occasional argument why this or that suggested change is better some other way; and the editor re-edits the revisions. My experience is that a polished first submission requires at least two, and usually three rounds of suggestions and rewrites. Other manuscripts have sometimes taken as many as six, though that does start to get tedious for both sides.

Again, it is important to view this as the editor working to make the manuscript as strong as it can be, rather than an obstruction. The goal here is to produce the best book possible, not just to get published. If getting published were the goal, one could self-publish and be done with it.

Note too, that it is important to make one's revisions on the same copy as the editor. These days, that usually means using "Track Changes" in Word, though some houses I'm told still prefer hard copy. The editor needs to see that the suggested comments have been addressed—either that the change as been made, or the author has provided reasons why the change is being resisted. It is not uncommon (and often quite interesting) to get a dialog going over this or that revision as comments go back and forth over two or three iterations. Sending a 'clean' copy back with all your changes, on the other hand, will likely drive your editor crazy as s/he has to reread the entire manuscript again, with a copy of the original next to it to compare line by tedious line, just to ensure that all the suggested edits have been attended to, and whether the revisions were successful.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy-part-2.html

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Common Errors #19 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Structural Editing (Part I)

Once a manuscript has been identified as one of interest, it still has to go for copy and/or structural editing (sometimes called developmental editing). The exact structure of the process varies publisher to publisher: In some companies, junior editors handoff manuscripts they nominate as promising to more senior editors. In others, the same editor works to develop whatever manuscripts they have identified from the slush pile, social contacts at conventions, or soliciting manuscripts from authors (perhaps based on the author's work for smaller presses). In smaller presses, the acquisition, development, and copy editor are often all the same person, sometimes just the publisher him/herself. Whatever the particular structure, the process is always the same: a promising manuscript is identified; the editor identifies weaknesses, or areas that could be explored further, and asks for changes; and finally the manuscript is copy edited.

There is always some structural editing. One may have polished a manuscript to flawless perfection, but that is largely irrelevant to the process, for two reasons:

First, the author's definition of perfection probably has something to do with the quality and integrity of the work; the editor's definition is as likely to be focused on marketability. Sure, that allusion is brilliant, funny, and exactly what that character would say in that moment, but it's over the heads of the mass-market audience and therefore a threat to future sales. It is the editor's job to raise the possibility of making the work more accessible. Yes, the hero needs to die tragically in the last scene -- but that decision precludes a sequel, and marketing costs could be better amortized over a trilogy—or even better, a series -- than a stand-alone novel. And American audiences in particular, prefer happy endings.

Which is, I hasten to clarify, not to suggest that all editors are philistines—quite the contrary in my experience. Just that their job is to help the author reach as large an audience as possible, and that minor adjustments can sometimes make a big difference in sales. There is probably no threat to the integrity of the work in changing "boot" to "trunk" and "torch" to "flashlight", to sell a British author to American audiences; but authors may justifiably balk at changing a gay character to straight, or a black character to white to pander to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator of the American mass market.

Authors may have lots of horror stories of changes demanded by editors [my personal favorite is the Canadian screenwriter who was asked if he would mind adapting his biography of a serial killer into a musical]; but for every author story, I can cite ten even more ridiculous accounts of authors unwilling to change a single word or comma in their far-from-perfect manuscripts. Authors, by definition, are too close to their own work to be able to spot the flaws in their manuscript. Development editors approach the manuscript with fresh eyes, and easily spot the lapses in logic, the sudden slowdowns in pacing, the out-of-character actions, and so on, that an author cannot. In the vast majority of cases, the editor is correct when identifying problematic areas of the current draft, though there may well be alternatives to their suggested fixes. Every suggested change is likely negotiable, but the author has to be willing to change—or to walk away from the deal.

It is true that not all editors are equally good, or equally appropriate for any given manuscript; finding the right editor to partner with is an important element in the successful development of any book. If one starts from the assumption, however, that the editor is the enemy and all their suggestions 'tampering', then the potential benefits of a successful working partnership are at risk, and the work likely impoverished thereby. Instead, start from the assumption that one's manuscript -- like all manuscripts -- could benefit from a second set of eyes, and that the editor appointed by the publisher is the most suitable for manuscripts of that sort. The careers of everyone involved is dependent on getting it right, so they really are trying to help; and not part of an international conspiracy to block or undermine new authors.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy-part-2.html

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Common Errors #18 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Acquisition Editors (Part III)

This is Part III of a discussion of how acquisition editors help writers.

Third, the acquisition editor's rejection letters actually provide a great deal of useful information, if one knows how to interpret them.

A form letter rejection means one is not yet within the ballpark, either because one is submitting to the wrong publisher, or because the work is not yet up to standard. Sorry, but again, don't shoot the messenger.

Occasionally, when an author's work shows promise, an acquisition editor will write a few words of encouragement, or point out one or two flaws that are keeping the author in the slush pile. This is an act of generosity, because every second spent writing a comment represents extra, unpaid labour for an overworked, highly stressed editor who could save him/herself a lot of effort simply by sticking to the boilerplate. Consequently, the more detailed the comments, the greater the implicit compliment -- that the editor believes the author shows enough promise to be worth the investment—even if the comments themselves appear quite negative.

If an acquisitions editor scribbles, "Not for us, but try us again" in the margin of the rejection slip, that's very a positive sign. One is within hailing distance of being accepted, but the editor already had too many time travel stories that month, or the story just didn't quite work for them, but they still saw something they liked. Put that magazine or publisher at the top of the list for next time: put some time and energy into researching the current issue / recent releases from that publisher to write something specifically targeted to that market. But one should only send one's very best work as a follow up to such a nibble -- do not make the beginner mistake of immediately shipping off everything in one's bottom drawer, especially if any of those manuscripts has already garnered a few rejections elsewhere. 

Longer comments are worthy of close examination. At first glance, the hastily scribbled comments of an acquisition editor may appear confusing, off target, or just plain stupid. Yes, the editor wrote, "didn't like the snake on page 25" when one doesn't happen to have any snakes on page 25, or elsewhere. It doesn't mean, as one often hears asserted, that the editor didn't even read the manuscript, or that they got the pages interleaved with someone else's draft. Far more likely, the editor was referring to the character of the brother-in-law and is trying to tell the author that she thought the characterization too obviously evil, or some such. Scribbling a quick (in their mind, helpful) comment on a rejected manuscript, acquisition editors often express themselves poorly. They literally cannot afford to take the time to make precise, thoughtful comments, unless an offer is on the table to buy the book. But careful examination of the confusing, oracle-like pronouncements of these acquisition editors can be useful in identifying problematic areas of the manuscript.

Of course, acquisition editors don't always say 'no'. They make their careers by discovering talented authors and advocating for their nominees within the company. When those authors produce for the company, the editor moves up in the organization. So they are highly motivated to help (marketable) new authors get published. Once they have a manuscript they feel they can work with, they either change to development editor mode, or (if the work is flawless) pass it on to a copy editor.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Gender Inclusive Writing Resources

The Canadian government has posted some resources for gender-inclusive writing, especially in business/government/academic writing:

Linguistic recommendation: gender-inclusive writing in correspondence
http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/wrtps/index-eng.html?lang=eng&lettr=indx_catlog_g&page=9tZXuAe4oZYs.html

Making letters and emails gender-inclusive
https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/blogue-blog/inclusifs-gender-inclusive-eng

Gender and sexual diversity glossary
http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/publications/diversite-diversity-eng.html

Thanks to Gael Spivak for pointing these out.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Common Errors #17 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Acquisition Editors Part II

Part I on acquisition editors talked about the first of three ways acquisition editors help authors. This is Part II.

Second, acquisition editors know their particular markets. If they say 'no', it may simply mean one is targeting the wrong market. Or, as sometimes happens, that even if one's book is brilliant, it may not be commercial. Don't shoot the messenger just because the answer isn't what one was hoping for. The acquisition editor is still doing the writer a favour, by identifying that this publisher is not the right venue for this book.  One needs to find the right audience for one's book to succeed, and if that means asking a series of acquisition editors for directions, one shouldn't be too disappointed if they simply say theirs is not the correct on-ramp for where one wants to go.

(Insert here standard lecture about researching markets before submitting—it never ceases to amaze me that so many manuscripts that show up in the wrong slush piles. Why submit a horror manuscript to an SF publisher that states right on their website that they don't publish horror?  Why submit an American SF novel to a specialty CanLit publisher? Waste of everybody's time and energy. If one is constantly getting the 'not for us' form letter, better check again that the right markets are being targeted.)

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Common Errors #16 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Acquisition Editors (Part 1)

There is a great deal of confusion out there about the role of editors.

Part of the problem is that the same label is applied to three very different roles/processes: acquisition editors, structural editors, and copy editors.

Acquisition Editors

When beginning writers think of editors, they usually focus on acquisition editors, the people who decide whether their book or story will be accepted for publication. As gatekeepers to the promised land of publication, it is easy to cast acquisition editors in the role of bad guy: the foul demons who fail to recognize our genius and arbitrarily reject our work, sometimes with cruel comments about the inadequacies of our manuscript.

That is, of course, a completely wrong-headed view of things. Acquisition editors serve three important functions for new authors:

First, they keep new authors from embarrassing themselves by publishing prematurely. One of the biggest flaws with the new self-publishing models is that it is impossible to know when one's manuscript is ready to go to press. All authors are, by definition, too close to their own work to be objective about this, and are either too self-critical (refusing to ever let go) or too self-generous (running with a first or third draft of the ten that may be required). Without an editor to tell one 'no', there is a real danger of going to press before the manuscript's full potential has been achieved—which is unfair to the book the manuscript might have become; unfair to readers who are not getting the book it could have been; and worst of all, not fair to the writer one may become. Without exception, every successful self-published author to whom I have spoken has, looking back, identified some fundamental flaw they wish they had caught before their books went to press.

Or to make the same point from a slightly different perspective: In the good old days, acquisition editors stopped newbies from publishing until they were ready, which usually happened about book five. I've interviewed over 100 successful authors, and in all but a few cases, it was their fifth book that finally got published. This is an obvious manifestation of K. Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hour rule: to master any significant skill requires about 10,000 hours of concentrated effort. The problem today is, having written those first four 'practice' novels -- and having a circle of (unqualified) friends and relatives telling one how good the books are -- it is very tempting to self-publish what should remain unpublished practice novels.

The problem in both scenarios is that one doesn't get a second chance for a first impression: readers (and reviewers) who feel that one's first novel bites, will shy away from any future titles. An awful lot of self-published writers looking back at their earlier work come to realize, not only how far they have grown since, but how much their writing career has been undermined by association with manuscripts that should never have been allowed to go public. One's name is one's brand: one cannot afford to allow it to be placed at risk.

Second…continued in next week's column.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Common Errors #15: All of Them in One Place

I'm writing this column based on my current experiences as Senior Editor at EssentialEdits.ca and before that as the former Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing, and before that, my years as a university professor. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention the greatest error tool of all time: The Turkey City Lexicon.

Turkey City is a Texas writers' group that produced numerous top science fiction writers from the 1970s to today. In undertaking their peer critiques of each other's writing, they evolved their own lexicon as one or other of them uttered some clever phrase that subsequently caught on to articulate various recurring problems or tropes. Since it originated with SF writers, some of the identified tropes and examples are science-fiction oriented, but with few exceptions can be easily extrapolated to any genre. The Turkey City Lexicon has therefore spread far and wide, and if you attend any professional and most amateur writing critique groups, this is the terminology with which you'll need to be familiar.

The lexicon is available FREE from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American (SFWA) https://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops/

It is an amazingly useful tool, not only in workshops, but to interrogate your own fiction manuscript when self-editing. The lexicon gives you the language to self-identify the most common errors writers make, and by implication, how to correct them. I highly recommend you download a copy and use it.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Common Mistake #14: Adverbs

Stephen King, in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft famously said:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's—GASP!!—too late.

King sets up the strawman of the evil adverb by providing numerous examples of appalling misuse, with which he then attempts to tar an entire part of speech. American authors, who were never completely comfortable with the adverb, often misquote King as saying one must never use adverbs. That is obvious nonsense. British authors (and by extension, Canadian writers) being native speakers of English are better equipped to use the adverb correctly. Far worse, in my view, is the inexcusable American habit of dropping the 'ly' from an adverb and pretending it is an adjective. But King is correct about the overuse of adverbs, if one is not cautious about their proliferation.

As with said bookism, adverbs in dialog tags must be used sparingly. As discussed in Common Errors episode 13, we usually don't need to spell out how something is said. If the dialog is well written, it is usually self-explanatory:

    "I hate you!" Frank said angrily.

We knew that Frank said that angrily from the words and the exclamation mark. The adverb sticking out can sometimes tip you that the entire tag can be deleted.

By extension, some caution is required not to overload adverbs onto self-explanatory actions:

    He angrily threw down the gauntlet.

Do we really need "angrily" in there? I think not.

Having "angrily" included creates three problems: First, its redundant, so removing "angrily" tightens the text, which I've suggested earlier means faster pacing, more tension, better action. Second, it restricts the reader to a single interpretation of "threw down the gauntlet" and in the reader-director's cut, that might have been better rendered as "haughtily" or "carelessly" or whatever. Don't try to overcontrol the script. Third, "angrily" is an example of that most basic of errors, "telling, not showing". If you have to tell us the character is angry, then you're probably not doing it right. We need to see anger in their body language, in their actions (throwing down a gauntlet, for example), in their choice of words, the punctuation, and so on. Too many adverbs may be a sign that the author is giving the reader the outline rather than the story.

A few deftly chosen adverbs can refine descriptions, occasional use in dialog tags and action scenes can provide necessary stage directions, but each use of an adverb should be interrogated to ensure that it's necessary.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Common Mistake #13: Said Bookism

Somewhere about grade 6, depending where you went to school, there's an exercise in Language Arts class that has students try to come up with more descriptive words to use instead of "said". Your English teacher then circled every time you wrote "said" and scrawled "choose better word" in red beside it. But here's the important thing I want you to remember about your English teachers: they themselves never published anything.

Yes, it's important to point out to students once during their schooling that there are some other words that mean "said" which might, on rare occasion, be usefully employed. But it is not helpful to insist on changing every "said" in an actual piece of writing (as opposed to the 12 example sentences on that one worksheet). If your English teachers had a thing about "said" it's because they read that one lesson and didn't understand that it was intended as a tool to add to the writing toolbox, not a rule to be slavishly enforced. In fact, it probably indicates that your English teacher wasn't even reading stories because if you look at actual writing, there are way more "said"s than their alternatives.

Don't think of "said" as a word: it's punctuation. Just like commas and periods, said is completely invisible to readers with Grade 5 literacy and above (i.e., your readers unless you're writing for beginning readers). Replacing said with any other word introduces stage directions into the dialog. Sometimes one needs stage directions, but providing stage directions every line of dialog drives readers to distraction.

First, stage directions are usually redundant:

"I hate you!" he shouted.

Really? You had to tell us he shouted that? The words "hate you" and the exclamation point weren't sufficient, you had to step in over the reader's shoulder and whisper into their ear, "this line of dialog is shouted"? Dialog, if well written, should be self-explanatory. We don't even need a "said" here, because unless there three different couples all talking at the same time, it's usually pretty clear who is yelling at whom.

There are three problems with replacing the invisible said with stage directions.

First, unnecessary stage directions are words that could be cut to tighten the writing to speed the pacing and so increase the tension and immediacy of the scene. "I hate you!" doesn't usually need any explanation. You can just move on immediately to the next piece of action or to the response:

"I hate you!" Grabbing the gun off the table, he pulled the trigger. (No dialog tag required.)
Or
"I hate you!"
"I hate you more, you bastard!" (No dialog tags required.)

Second, said replacements are often a sign the author is over-controlling, trying to dictate to the reader every tiny detail and nuance. Insisting the reader read the scene exactly as you saw it in your head is self-indulgent and alienating. The reader has to be allowed to bring something to the page, just like the play director has to have some room to interpret a script. Once you've written the scene, it's not yours anymore: the reader gets to remember the time their mom/lover/neighbour said "I hate you!" and bring all that emotional baggage to your scene, to relive those emotions in your scene—which makes your scene way better than you wrote it. That won't work if you insisted "he shouted" instead of "he growled" which is what it was for them.

Third, too many obvious stage directions (like "he shouted") could be received by at least some readers as insulting to their intelligence. Not a reaction you want!

Therefore: save "said" replacements for when you need them.

For example, if the character is saying something in an unexpected way, then a "said" replacement can really improve a line of dialog:

    "I hate you!" he whispered.

Oh yeah, we needed that "whispered", because it goes against the expectation of the exclamation mark, which is way creepier than some guy shouting it. People yell their emotions all the time and don't necessarily mean it literally; a covert, whispered threat can be significantly more sinister. So sometimes we need the stage directions.

Sometimes we need a dialog tag of "John growled" because even if the tone is obvious, the speaker isn't and "said" would be discordant with the emotion being expressed.

And sometimes, yes, we need to break up 200 "said" dialog tags with something different. But the use of said replacements has to be deliberate and sparing.

Too many "said" replacements is called "said bookism" because it usually feels like the author is trying too hard to elevate their writing. Said is indeed elementary, but replacing every "said" quickly comes across as pompous and tedious. So, choose carefully.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Writing Better Fiction - Brent Nichols

Writing Better Fiction released at When Words Collide (Calgary writer's convention) this weekend.

Pleased that my chapter was included in Writing Better Fiction, a charity anthology of donated essays on writing tips for fiction authors. All proceeds go to support In Places Between, the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, https://ipbcontest.weebly.com. I was keen to contribute because Robyn was my friend: I did some beta reading for her years ago, so have read everything she wrote, and I greatly treasure a strikingly beautiful blown-glass globe she made and then gifted me. I've also been a judge for In Places Between, and believe that the contest and the accompanying anthology have done a lot to develop new writers.

The volume covers everything from beginnings to endings and every aspect of writing in between. There is also a chapter on business plans for writers. My contributions is "Description: When Less Equals More".

Besides me, contributors to the volume include Robert J. Sawyer (major award-winning author and Keynote Speaker at the upcoming Wordbridge conference), Hayden Trenholm (author and managing editor, Bundoran Press) Barb Galler-Smith (author and editor with On Spec Magazine), Adria Laycraft, (author and editor with EssentialEdits.ca), Ron S. Friedman (author), Brent Nichols (author), J.E. Bernard (author), Shawn Bird (author & poet), Sally McBride (author), Tim Reynolds, (author), Craig DiLouie (author), Ace Jordyn (author), Liz Westbrook-Trenholm (author), J. Paul Cooper (author), Renée Bennett (author), Randy Nikkel Schroeder (author), Jim Jackson (author and author of storytelling manuals), and the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA), Josephine LoRe (author and poet), Swati Chavda (editor, author & neurosurgeon), Sandra Hurst (author), Mahrie G. Reid (author and instructor), Sandra Fitzpatrick (author Lee F. Patrick) and Lisa Brassard (author).

Thanks to Brent Nichols for taking on this project, and for accepting my chapter.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Common Mistake #12 "As You Know, Bob" Dialog

One way authors try to work in information the audience needs is through dialog. This can work well if there is some believable context where one character knows something the other doesn't, so both that character and the reader can learn the fact or clue at the same time. There are two possible problems here, however, that one has to be on guard against.

The Dumb Blonde
Back in the bad old days of pulp fiction, it was fairly common practice to have the scientist hero explain how the warp drive works to the attractive heroine passenger whose primary role in such space operas was to say things like, "How does the warp drive work, professor?" You can imagine the reaction to this 1930's motif today. Sexism, racism, agism, etc is going to get you assassinated in reviews, so don't have a dumb anything in your story. If the only purpose of a character is so other characters can explain things to them, that's a fail. (Mirrors and pets count as another character if your protagonist talks to them more than once or at length.)

"As You Know, Bob"
It's okay to have the detective explain that the suspect was seen at the scene of a previous crime, because that's information the character who wasn't there couldn't be expected to know. As long as that dialog arises organically from the current scene, and doesn't interrupt the action, that's how to do it. But having one police officer explain police procedure to another police officer makes no sense. They both know that already so would no more explain that to each other than you explain how a toaster works to your family every time you heat bread. Explaining things other characters already know is only acceptable when deliberately portraying a character as mansplaining or afflicted with particular varieties of mental illness. Having characters say things they already know to each other drops the reader out of the character's point of view and therefore out of the story.

If you could add "as you know ______ (character name)" to any dialog between characters, all that dialog has to go.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Common Mistake#11: Roundabout Redundancy

As an undergraduate, I was often told I needed to "tighten up" my writing. I never understood what that meant or how one might go about 'tightening', so the advice wasn't all that helpful. It wasn't until I was in grad school and discovered Howard Becker's book on Writing for the Social Sciences that I figured what that meant and how to do it. Allow me, then, to explain it to you.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the process is the same. We start with an idea or scene, and we try to get what's in our head down on paper. But because it's still in the process of forming, you don't know quite what you're trying to argue or show until it's actually down on the page. This exploration of the scene/idea/theme is a natural part of first draft writing, but the result is that one writes down a line, then a second line to fill in some detail that first sentence didn't include, then another line to show some action, then another line to firm up your idea/visual, and then yet another line to nail that all down. The result is that as one circles 'round the core of the scene/idea, one ends up taking the scenic route to get to the point. Trying to tease out your own thinking leads to a lot of repetition, of rephrasing the same thought several different ways, of half saying the point here, saying the other half over there, and a third half over again because you feel you still haven't quite got it.

As you can see by the math, the first draft doesn't quite add up: it's likely wordy, unfocused, and repetitious. That's to be expected for the first draft, because you cannot see the scene or fully realize what your point was until you've worked it out on paper. You didn't realize the hero had to duck left, until you wrote that bit where the villain swings right. You can't see that A plus B equals C until you write A down on paper, to give B a chance to pop into your brain. The first draft is all about getting your ideas or scene down in rough so you can go back and refine later.

"Tightening" your writing simply means revising this initial rough draft to reduce those eight or nine roundabout sentences into one or two clear sentences. Now that you know what the scene or argument is, you need to go back and rewrite the paragraph to get directly to the point, without all the wandering hither and yon.

That's a lot harder than it sounds, because the scene or argument is now perfectly clear in your own mind, so when you look at you wrote, you see the scene that's in your head, not the circuitous labyrinth that's actually what's on the page. That's why many authors recommend putting a manuscript aside for six months and work on something else (a different scene, another story, gardening) and then come back when you've half forgotten what you've written. Then, hopefully, you can see the scene with fresh eyes and say to yourself, "Gosh, that line repeats the information I already covered two lines back" or "These three lines are trying to describe X, I should just write X" and so tighten up the writing so it actually says what you're trying to convey.

Howard Becker's dictate was simply: how many words can you cut without losing the meaning of the sentence/paragraph? Of course, he was addressing nonfiction and was all about being more precise and concise, but the principle holds equally for fiction. I'm not saying you have to cut out all the poetry and nuance, only that you have to be sure that you only have the image/symbol/metaphor that you need. That you're only describing the action that the camera would show the audience if this were a film, and not going off to describe details or scenery that isn't immediately relevant.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Common Mistake #10: Expository Lump

Another mistake I see a lot is the "expository lump". This is where the author stops the story to explain something to the audience. Sometimes it's character backstory, sometimes it's a history lesson, sometimes it a rant against some government policy, sometimes a quaint discussion of poisons so that the audience is up to speed for when the victim drops dead over her teacup two chapters later. Expository lumps are, by definition, an intrusion on the narrative, rather than the necessary information emerging organically from the action.

Expository lump is a fatal flaw for three reasons:

First, the forward action of the story stops dead while the author speaks to the audience. The explanation interrupts the action and defuses whatever tension has been carefully built up to now. By and large, your audience paid for a story, not an essay, so when the story stops, they stop reading. Even if you break these asides into smaller bite-sized bits, rather than a three-page essay, you're still serving lumpy gravy.

Second, expository violates the character's point of view. It's often the author talking, not the character, because the character already knows the information s/he is "thinking" and it doesn't make sense for the character to be thinking about that now. If the ninja jumps out at our hero, he doesn't stop and remind himself, "ninjas originally appeared in the 15th century during the Sengoku period of Japan but were considered dishonorable because of their use of covert methods" he's too busy thinking, "Look out!" As soon as the author starts explaining background history, we're no longer seeing through the character's eyes, and we've fallen out of the story.

Third, most of the information presented in expository lump is unnecessary. If the story is about the heroine hanging off a cliff, do we really need to know her fear of heights came from that time she fell off the roof when she was six? Why spend time telling us about another scene from another book when all one has to do is show us she's afraid? The answer is usually that the author has spent hours developing their setting, character, plot and so on and having put in all that work, feels compelled to tell the audience all about it. But it's redundant, off message, a distraction . . . bloating.

Cut the expository lumps out of your writing, and you automatically move it up to the next level.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Common Mistake #9: Backstory: Alternating Scenes/Chapters

I have read stories and books where the author explores two different timelines, one backstory to the other, and brings these together at the end in the "aha!" moment when the author realizes why what happened in the backstory chapters determined how the protagonist responded in the current timeline the way they did. But, um, don't try this at home.

I had occasion once to judge 33 CanLit short stories, of which I think 28 used this motif. Reading twenty-seven of these stories left me scratching my head, because they were terrible. Then I read the one author who pulled this off, and it was stunning! I voted for it to win, and it won a half dozen other awards as well. Reading that story finally showed me what the other 27 had been trying for, but . . .so not.

I'm not saying you shouldn't accept a challenge, as long as you are aware that's what you're doing, and there is a good reason for you doing this particular story that way. Just don't adopt that motif because it's "in" or because you spent all that energy on developing backstory and are hellbent on working it all in somehow. If there is a simpler way to present your story, chances are, that will make a better story. (Two better stories, actually, if you can write and sell both backstory and current story, separately.)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Common Mistake #8 Backstory: Timing

In developing the character, the author may have decided to add a limp, and knows whether the limp was from their previous military service or falling out a tree when they were six. Great, that will help the writer know how the character will respond in any particular scene. But there is no earthly reason to interrupt the current action—say, limping away from the scene of the crime while sirens scream in the distance—to have a flashback to when they were up a tree and about to fall. Leaving the current scene in which you have carefully built up the tension, to start over with a different scene in a flashback to when they were six, is obviously self-defeating. If not handled correctly, backstory can disrupt continuity, dissipate tension, and throw the reader out of the character's point of view (because it doesn't make sense to be thinking of backstory when dealing with the current emergency). For this scene, the reader needs to know whether our hero gets to his car before the cops get there, not why he is limping. They probably never need to know why the limp, but certainly not now.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Common Mistake #7 Backstory: Compulsive Bloat

When an author is developing their character, or the setting, or the plot, it's important for them to know the history that led up to the point where the story starts. An author creates realistic characters or settings by knowing them inside and out. But there is generally no need to tell the reader any of that backstory.

Having put a lot of effort into backstory or worldbuilding or character development, there is a natural desire to get some return on that investment beyond just knowing how your setting works today and how your characters interact now. Working in the backstory therefore becomes almost compulsive with some authors, inevitably leading to bloating the manuscript way beyond what the current story can carry.

If the backstory is actually that good, write it as a separate story and sell it to a magazine, so that when the novel comes out, there is already a market for that character and/or setting. Readers love when they know backstory from having encountered these characters before, and will often seek out other stories with the same world or characters. Or write it as series with prequels and sequels galore. But today's book has to stay focused on the current story, unless there is a compelling reason to risk going off message. Trying to fit all of that into one book inevitably distracts from the current action and leads to a bloated manuscript.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Drabble

My first published drabble (a drabble is a story exactly 100 words long) is up at https://thedrabble.wordpress.com/2019/06/30/pillow-talk/

Writing Drabbles and other types of flash and micro fiction is a good way to 'tighten' one's writing. Editors and agents often say things like, "this is good, it just needs to be tightened up a bit" but it's not always obvious to the author what that means exactly. As I try to edit down my novel by 25% without actually cutting any scenes, paring down my verbose style to something a little 'tighter' is what's required. The discipline of writing a story in a hundred words, or even 1000 words for flash, helps develop the skills necessary to be more concise...

Try it! Harder than it looks!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Common Mistake #6: Physical Descriptions in Place of Characterization

The author often mistakenly believes s/he breathes life into a character by providing all sorts of detail; but in fact it often has the opposite effect: by lavishing attention on the physical description, the author is to that same degree likely to skimp on actual characterization. Eye color does not a character make, because one can randomly (re)assign hair and eye color and not change the character in any fundamental way. (Well, unless these things have special significance in this particular SF&F world, that grey eyes indicate elvish ancestry, or some such...). Characters are generally memorable because of their actions, motivations, attitudes, strengths, flaws—in short, their personalities— rather than eye or hair color. If one's character notes are all about physical appearance, then you're doing it wrong. As we frequently reassure each other, it's not appearance that counts, but what's inside.

Which is not to suggest that one should never provide any detail of appearance or setting; only that one needs to ensure these details are inserted when timely and relevant; that they don't occur as a disruption of the narrative, or in overwhelming quantity (see previous columns, "Common Mistakes #2 thur #4: Less is More).

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Common Mistake #5: Too Specific Physical Descriptions

Although the author may have cast the character in a particular way, imposing that one specific actor/description on the reader is unnecessarily restrictive. Yes, the author may have worked hard to picture the scene s/he is trying to depict down to the specifics of hair and eye color, but contrary to the beginner's understanding of the process, the writer's job is not to reproduce that scene in the reader's brain exactly as the author originally pictured it. On the contrary, one wants a certain level of vagueness, of blank canvas, onto which the reader may project their own experiences and preferences. Just as a playwright has to allow for a certain amount of interpretation of the script by the director and actors, the writer has to leave room for the reader to bring something to the project.

For example, if the story features a bully, then it is far better if in the reader's mind that bully merges with that bastard down in accounting who is currently making their life miserable. Of course their conscious mind is not about to suffer any such confusion, since we're pretty sure the guy in accounting is not in fact the murder or king of the space vampires, or whatever; but great fiction, like great opera, often bypasses the intellect and goes directly to the viscera, with people's emotions. The resonance between the writing and the reader's own experience may be disrupted, however, if one insists on establishing definitively that the guy in accounting is not the bully under discussion because the one in the book has red hair and blue eyes.

Or, to take an example from the other end of the emotional scale, if one is too precise in describing the love interest, one runs the risk of including a detail that is, for the reader, a deal breaker. "Electric blue eyes" is as likely to remind them of their ex as of their current lover. (It is the same reason why it seldom pays to be too explicit in sex scenes: if it doesn't happen to be the reader's kink, one is more likely to get an "eewww!" than a sale.)

So why go there? If the writer insists on determining every microscopic detail of the experience for the reader because that happened to be how the writer pictured the scene, then it's not about trying to be precise, it's about being a control freak. If one wants to build readership, one has to give up some control so the reader can take some ownership of the reading experience. If one wants readers to recommend the book to their friends, then the reader has to come to think of it as one of their books

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Role of the Editor

This blog by Iva Cheung provides excellent insight into the writing process for academics/grad students, and then provides the most perfect explanation of the role of the editor I have ever encountered.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Common Mistake #4: Automatic Physical Descriptions

Another problem I see a lot is the mistaken belief that one needs to provide a detailed physical description of every character that crosses the page, no matter how minor. Beginning authors seem particularly focused on eye and hair color. Here's the thing: no one cares. No one ever said, "Hey, I bought this great book: it's protagonist had blue eyes. Can you believe that?! It was so great to see that in a book!"

There are three problems with providing too much physical description of characters (and to some extent, of settings).

First, timing. Beginning authors often feel they have to provide the character's appearance immediately upon that character's initial entrance. There is certainly a logic to that, but then what one often gets is expository lump right in the middle of what is supposed to be an action scene. Say an assassin jumps out at our hero: if the author feels compelled to provide a detailed description of what the killer looks like, then instead of the rapid pace of swordplay, gun fire or fisticuffs, the story comes to a complete standstill while we are briefed on disheveled hair, wild eyes, rumpled suit, and so on down to the shoelaces. Interesting as all of this might be, it is less relevant and compelling then the fact the individual in question is trying to kill the viewpoint character.

When police try to debrief an incident, for example, the witnesses are often hard pressed to identify their assailant's hair and eye color and height and so on because their attention was pretty much focused on the fact that they were being assaulted. (Sometimes they remember their was a knife, but the description is usually about and six inches bigger than it actually was.) In the heat of the moment, eye color is pretty far down the list of what people notice; so the reader won't really notice its absence either, if the writer provides sufficient action. What the reader will notice is that description replaced action; that the action ground to an unexpected halt at the precise moment the author should have been building tension.

Publication in Active Voice

I wrote a 500-word flash piece in response to this painting by Group of Seven artist, Lawren Harris. It was published today in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Active Voice, the Editors Canada newsletter.

The story is here if you'd like to read it. If you do, can you see what I saw in the painting?

The story represents a few firsts: I believe this is the first time Active Voice has solicited fiction and poetry from its members; it's my first publication translated into French, and I think this was only my third piece of flash ever.

I have found the discipline of writing flash has been very helpful as I edit my novel down from 166,000 words to something more manageable—say 120,000. Editors often say airily to their clients that the author needs to 'tighten up the writing' but it's often hard to explain exactly what that entails. Trying to write a complete story in 1,00, or 500 words, or a drabble (exactly 100 words), quickly teaches one which words are essential, and which can go. Once one develops the mindset of cutting to core, tightening up our verbose first drafts comes a lot more naturally.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Another Essential Editor Publishes this week.

And no sooner had I entered the last post, than another Essential Edits editor has a release:

Halli Lilburn has a story out in the just released Tesseracts 22 from Edge Publishing (co-edited by my former boss, Loria Stevens, and Susan McGregor, whose first novel I edited years ago). Halli's story is "Joint Eaters" and she shares the Table of Contents with some very big names in Canadian speculative fiction.

New book by an Essential Edits editor

Cover reveal for forthcoming book from an Essential Edits editor: Jumpship Hope by Adria Laycraft published by Tyche Books.

Earth is a storm-ravaged wasteland

Humanity has fled the planet, establishing bases off-world. But disaster has struck the food crops of Luna Base, leaving the Orbitals starving, and Mars Colony ignores their pleas for aid.

Hot-headed pilot Janlin Kavanaugh will do anything to save her friends, so when SpaceOp captain Stepper Jordan proposes a sketchy plan to save their people, she immediately volunteers. Anything is better than slow starvation, even a risky voyage to an alien solar system in a ship with unproven Jump technology.

The mission faces unexpected dangers, and the mettle of Janlin and her crew is tested, against each other and the strange, new species they encounter. Can Janlin overcome mistrust and betrayal to salvage the mission and restore hope to her friends and herself?

Book release is set for Summer 2019--i.e., shortly.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Common Mistake #3 Less is More: Everything

"Less is more" also applies to, well, everything: metaphors, jokes, even surplus characters. I had a manuscript across my desk where a writer used essentially the same line twice within three pages. It was funny and it built up the speaker's character, but you can't get a laugh out of the same punchline twice in three pages; one of them had to go. Later that same day, I was reading another manuscript where the author introduced several characters, spent time describing them, building up their personalities, but then didn't actually have them do anything in the story. They were just sort of there . . . except for one character who sat out the entire story in the barn, and so wasn't even there. Maybe save the barn character for another story . . . Just because you thought of an image, or a metaphor or a character, or a funny line doesn't mean you have to use it. Keep to the point, keep things moving forward, and restrict yourself to your very best material.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Dave Duncan Website

The late Dave Duncan's website has been hacked...his family has moved the content to a new address: https://www.essentialedits.ca/Duncan/updates.htm

I am editing Dave Duncan's unfinished manuscripts for publication. (He's not done yet!) The first of these releases will be The Traitor's Son from Five Rivers in August 2021.

The 2019 Aurora Awards ballot has been announced: File 770 news Very pleased to see TIMEFALL by Alison Lohans, a book I edited for Five Rivers, made the shortlist for best YA novel.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Common Mistake #2 Less is More: Description

Another common mistake I see is beginning authors piling on the images. For example, the protagonist will ride his trusty steed into a forest, and the author will start a description of the forest with a nice image of the trees—and then another, and another and another and another until one cannot see the forest for the imagery....[sorry]. What I mean is, the first image will be striking, and the reader will think, "nice image!" and then read another couple of words and find another striking image, and think, "oh wow, another nice image—I can really see it;" and then bump into yet another image and think, "oh, that's, uh, vivid," and then another image and think, "say, this is really quite dense description". By the next image the reader is either getting impatient to get back to the story—which has likely ground to a halt—or going, "wait, what was that about the leaves again?", because one can only take in so many images piled atop one another before hitting sensory overload. The more images stacked up, the weaker each one becomes. One cannot emphasize the leaves and the trunks and the branches and the roots and the piles of dead leaves and the moss and the ants and that deer over there and the way the sun glints through the trees and the way the pattern of light dapples the forest floor and keep on to cover the entire ecology of the forest...because if everything is emphasized, nothing is.

Or, to put it another way, while it might have taken the writer three days to shape that description of the forest, and so had time to savor each carefully crafted image, the reader is going past at 300 words a minute. Okay, maybe if you're Proust or James Joyce, readers will slow down for you, but, um, you're not. Not yet, anyway. So less is more. Out of the ten images you've come up with, pick the best one; prune the rest. This will usually make the scene—and your writing—leaner, tighter and ever so much better.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Cover Reveal of Group of Seven Reimagined

Here' the cover of The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings.

The hardcover book is available now for pre-order on Amazon.ca

I'm really pleased that my speculative fiction piece, "Iceberg" is in here: it's an honour to participate in such an important project, marking the anniversary of the Group of Seven, and to share a table of contents with such a great lineup of authors. Feeling a bit like this means I have finally "arrived"! Can't hardly wait until the book is actually released in October, and I get my copy.

Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts #1: Starting Too Soon

The most common mistake I see is authors starting the story way too early. They need to start with the 'initiating incident', the thing that makes today different from yesterday for the characters. Starting with the 'before' picture does NOT work, because 'before' was just ordinary and readers do not want to read about ordinary life. We are all already living our own ordinary lives, thank you very much, and we bought the book for a taste of something different. Start with the action scene, start with the characters under threat and keep them under threat as the action and tension builds...no one wants to read the characters' "Before" story, their backstory, at least not in the first 30 pages.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts (Introduction)

As a follow-up to the wildly successful, oversubscribed Live Action Slush panel at WordBridge 2019, I've been writing a weekly column for the WordBridge Facebook page on the errors I most commonly see across my desk as Senior Editor at EssentialEdits.ca. It occurs to me to re-run those here as well. Three of the most common mistakes have already been mentioned on posts here, but that was several years ago, so worth repeating.

But I'd like to start by pointing out that all these "errors" are just things I'm asking you to consider in your writing, not hard and fast rules that must be obeyed. These are common errors because they are things that beginning writers (and sometimes veterans) often do without thinking, but if you have in fact thought about why you're doing this or that, and it's important to your vision, then go ahead and do that. It's not my job as an editor to dictate how you write your story. Just as there is no secret formula for great writing or commercial sales (note: those are usually distinct categories) there is no universal formula for things not to do. For every "common error" covered on a live-action slush panel or in this column over the coming year, one can point to awesome counterexamples in critically acclaimed and/or commercial fiction.

Take, for example, "expository lump": an information dump in the middle of the story where the author stops the action to explain how the science works in a science fiction novel, or how magic works in a fantasy novel, or police procedures work in a detective novel, or provides historical backstory in historical novels, or whatever. For most authors, getting the expository lumps out of their manuscript instantly raises it to the next level, because expository lumps usually interrupt the action, defuse the tension, and distract the reader. Do you really want to read a six-page essay on the fake science behind how warp drive works or do you just want to hear Kirk say, "Warp factor 5" and get on with the action?

But having said that, Robert Sawyer—the most commercially successful and award-winning Canadian SF writer ever—has very consciously laced all his books with chunks of exposition. In his case, that's not a bug, that's a feature. Of course, his exposition is better written and integrated than most, and his identification, interpretation and working out the implication of various scientific developments is what draws Sawyer's fans to his books. Declaring the exposition in his books to be 'lumps' and something to be excised would be completely missing the point and commercial suicide.

The difference is, Sawyer knows what he's doing and why he's doing it. If you haven't thought about where you're putting in the exposition and it's just kind of happened as you were writing the first draft, then looking at the checklist of common errors and asking yourself, "did I just do that?" might be a useful part of revision.

Let me start this column, then, by referring you to an excellent article by Xandra J., "The Absurdity of Publishing" (https://blog.usejournal.com/the-absurdity-of-publishing-8c9e141adaf9) that refutes just about everything that you're likely to hear at a Live Action Slush panel or in the coming installments of this column. Xandra riles against the sort of advice I'm about to give you with the complaint that "Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish." Yep, that's about right, if authors take the errors checklist too literally.

For example, when I first posted on another blog about not making the mistake of piling on too many images at once, I got a pretty strong backlash from a group of poets. Well, um, no, wasn't addressing those remarks to poets who have carefully crafted a series of images and are on the 16th draft of their poetry chapbook. I was talking to someone looking at the first draft of their action-adventure novel and asking if a two-page description of a sunrise is really how they want to try to hook the reader.

Context and vision are everything, and no universal rule of writing exists. Indeed, great writing may require breaking some of the rules some of the time. For every five authors I have to edit down the bloat, I have one who needs to expand every scene so it's not just in their head but on the page. Any "common errors" discussion is about checking to see if you are making that mistake without really understanding why that could be a problem; but if you know what you are doing and why you're doing it for this scene in the context of this story, then, yeah, go for it!

If there is any advice I think might actually be universal, then it is these three points:

  • Take all advice with salt
  • Think about every word your write
  • Write the book you want to read