Stepping Back For The Big Picture

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“Yes, Sweet Pea?”

“When you put up decorations?”

Ah, the strident call of fatherhood…

“Right after I get done writing, I promise!”

Sheesh, Halloween seemed more fun when I didn’t have to decorate everything!

A Little Stinger!

It is that time of year again, and this year I promised to make our entryway a scary treat for the trick-or-treaters. While my evening will be spent watching copious amounts of Ghost Hunters Live, I will be doling out sweets to neighborhood children in the hopes that the annual bribe will spare my house any nasty tricks!

I do actually love Halloween, it kind of gives us permission to let our darker side out, if only for a day. But the constant need to decorate everything for every holiday is not exactly a positive side to parenthood. I love my kids and want to give them those great childhood experiences, but I can’t help but think the executives at Wal-mart and Party Time are laughing their butts off. Sigh.

This month, I want to step back and urge you to do the same thing. We often get so caught up in our efforts that we forget the forest for the trees. The forest in this case is our story. While we could easily talk ad nauseam about good story and character development, I want us to step back from the mechanics and really look at our story as a reader not a writer.

I have written and published four novels in my Onyalum Series and love every book. Yes, I still read my own series over and over again for both enjoyment and to keep the overall storyline fresh in my mind as I continue on the next book in the series. The funny thing is, I still love these stories even after five years and multiple readings. And that matters!

I am currently re-reading book three, Red Star Conspiracy, my favorite one so far. Not only is my writing at its sharpest in this novel, but the characters and adventures they go on are the types of adventures I wish I could go on. A reviewer commented that this story was reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in its high adventure, but it readily includes science, both real and fictional, to satisfy most SciFi fans.

I am a SciFi fan as well! In fact, I am very well read in many of the old classics despite eschewing many of the current stories. I try to keep my work pure without tainting from current trends in SciFi. Probably not a great marketing move, but a wonderful writing tool. My stories are mine and mine alone, although I would be naive in thinking they are not influenced somewhat by past stories.

But this takes us away from the matter at hand. Stepping back and looking at the forest, your story. If you cannot read your own work and be as excited after the fourth or fifth reading as you were the day you wrote it, then what does that say about your story. Now, I have read and heard the buzz from authors who claim to never re-read their work after it is published. My question is why not?

If you are writing stories that you love, then why not read those same stories yourself? In other words, if the story is not enough to jazz you, then why should you expect your readers to be jazzed? Didn’t almost all authors start out as readers? I did!

When I re-read a story I have written, I forget about editing, I forget about story development, and I forget about character and narrative. I simply read as though I am that reader of my distant past. When I am done, I see the forest. I see the things that made the story a good yarn! And that is the gold we must never lose as a writer.

Now, in terms of process, you want to edit your current novel before you publish it, and I have outlined a good process for doing that in my blog. So, you may now be wondering what value stepping back and re-reading your published works will have on your future works.

Inspiration, evolution, continuity, focus, modeling, and enjoyment come to mind. It reminds me of building a house for yourself. Is the process of building what makes the experience enjoyable or is living in it afterwards what counts? For me, the process of creation is a catharsis, but reading the final product is the true prize.

It is the fruit of my labors, and I relish every bite. If you cannot say that about what you have written, then maybe it isn’t worth reading? I am re-energized when I read my past novels. The sense of accomplishment and pride in producing something the world has not seen is worthy unto itself, but now I’ll always have something I can come back to and read over and over again, like those old novels you have always enjoyed. I still love reading Frank Herbert decades since I read my first Dune novel.

Don’t forget why you are writing, it is to produce a story you and your readers will love. But if you cannot say you love your novels, then what does that say about your story? Always take a moment to step back and look for your forest. In the long run, you will improve your writing when you remember what you are writing for. Lord knows it is not for the money! Step back from the mechanics and be a good storyteller.

One of my favorite criticisms from a proof reader for my last novel was his disgust with how short the story was. At one hundred and seven thousand words, I chuckled at his comment. Mission accomplished.

Now, where did I put those decorations? Pumpkins, spider webs, bats, lights, … Sheesh, what have I gotten myself into?


Don’t Do That!

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“Yes, Sweetie?”

“We’re taking off for the mountains.”

Excellent, bacheloring it for the weekend!

“Okay, have a lot of fun!”

Now, what time does Resident Evil 3D start?

Resident Evil: Afterlife

A rare weekend to myself, but one that I will take great advantage of. First, I can catch up on my writing tasks before taking in a “non-family” movie. After watching Up last night, I feel the need for something more … violent.

Last month, I taught you my process for making editing a more manageable task in your writing. If you wait till the end, you’ll give up in frustration at the monumental effort before you. By breaking it down into smaller pieces, your frustration level decreases while your writing quality increases. After all, reflection is a powerful learning tool.

This month, I would like to let you in on some of my most infamous editing faux pas in the hopes you will avoid them. The fact that I call these out in my book and blog would lead one to believe that I no longer make these mistakes. One would be wrong.

None of these are earth shattering, but they definitely can mean the difference between sounding like a beginner versus a professional. The first and foremost editing tip I will share is “Don’t do That!”. Really, I mean don’t use the word that unless absolutely necessary! This is one of those words that creep into our vocabulary regularly, but is really not necessary in our writing.

Here is an example to emphasize where it tends to show up:

It was really that he didn’t want to seem upset despite churning inside.

A better alternative would be the following:

He didn’t want to appear upset despite churning inside.

That is a wonderful word, but superfluous in most writing circumstances. There are times when it is necessary like “That was wonderful.”, but usually an alternative restructuring can remove it from a sentence. Do a global search in your document and read every instance of where you use the word. Then attempt to rewrite it out of the sentence. I think you’ll find a much better flow when you are done. I still put that into my writing, which is why I search them out and attempt to replace them.

An extemporaneous writing style creeps into my work on occasion, thus leading to the infamous “passive” writing that we are repeatedly warned about in numerous writing books and classes. Here are my most common “passive” combinations I search out while editing:

  • could hear
  • could see
  • could touch
  • would know
  • would be
  • would feel
  • was saying
  • was wondering
  • was hoping

The list is far from complete, but it is the most common set of offenses I find in my writing. Again, do a global document search for these passive verb combinations and you’ll be surprised how often they appear. Get rid of them. Sometimes they are appropriate, but very rarely.

Another very common problem is word repetition within a paragraph or set of sequential paragraphs. An example will best illustrate this. Read the following and see if you can pick it out:

He felt nervous when they started moving towards the car. What were they looking for? Him? Nervously, he crept around the back of the shed to get a better view of these intruders. They might be police, but until he was certain he would remain nervous.

Under the light post behind his car, one of the persons appeared to be in a uniform. Still, without confirmation they were not after him, he would be nervous. Best to wait them out before taking off. Suddenly, a flashlight swung in his direction, and he scrambled back behind the shed, nervously hoping they hadn’t spotted him.

See the problem? Feeling a little nervous after reading this? I suppose this is a bit contrived, but you would be amazed how often this type of repetition can enter your writing when you are ‘in-the-flow’. Look for this while editing.

Another problem I seem to create after blasting out twenty pages in a single sitting is the usage of very simple vocabulary. Let’s look at this through another example:

He went to the table to get the gun before they returned. It wasn’t like he would actually use it, but just in case. No one knew who he really was, but if they found out they might try to take advantage of it. If they did, he would have something to say about that.

At first blush, this seems a reasonable passage. It is clean, concise and hard to misinterpret. In fact, it is too clean and concise. This style is wonderful if you are writing technical documents, but you are trying to tell a story, so broaden the vocabulary to add interest. Here is a rewrite of this passage:

He retrieved the pistol from the table, certain he wouldn’t require it, but pleased it was available. He wisely assumed if anyone discovered his true identity they would take advantage, profiting from the information. With the additional firepower, he’d have something to say about that.

Although this was a quick edit, notice how the change in vocabulary changed the passage from utilitarian to something more dramatic. It adds interest simply through the use of a broader vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t going for more flowery prose here, we simply want to increase from the basic words to something more appealing. If you are not sure, have someone read both versions and tell you which is more interesting.

Okay, my final faux pas that even creeps into traditional, commercial writing is using the wrong word. See if you can pick them out of this passage:

When all was sad and done, there was little he could do. The parents had changed out the locks preventing him from assessing the box. Without the proper combination, he’d never reprieve the book. His friends would be appointed, especially Shelly.

Clearly this isn’t what the author intended to say, but since spell checkers won’t catch these correctly spelled but incorrect words, they are nearly impossible to find without careful reading. Even when you read these, you can easily miss them as our minds automatically replace the wrong word with the correct one. However, when it isn’t your work you are reading, these really stick out, making for an unpleasant reading experience.

With Microsoft Word, it often ‘helps’ me when I really don’t want the help. When I mistype something, a common error, it fixes it for me. Unfortunately, it usually replaces the misspelled word with a correctly spelled but wrong word. Yes, I have found this in even the best writer’s work.

As our software becomes more sophisticated, it becomes even harder to avoid this error. As if our writing didn’t suffer enough from our own mistakes, we now have to contend with our software adding more in a vain attempt to help us. Ain’t technology great!

There is so much more to editing that I cannot instruct you in all of it. There are thousands of books, seminars, classes, and examples of what not to do in writing. However, I assume you have already mastered most of these and only suffer from the same common blunders I still enjoy.

It is easier to say “Don’t do That!” than to actually do it. But if you are following my regular editing technique, you will easily sweep up these common pitfalls before they make it to press. Once you let a large chunk go unedited, you will be more likely to permit these faux pas into your writing. Edit regularly to avoid such rookie mistakes.

Okay, off to Fandango to check out movie times. Although I am not really into Zombie movies, you got to love Milla Jovovich in tight clothes holding a weapon. Alright, I’m a guy, I admit it!

Write, Edit, Write, Repeat…

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“What is it, Princess?”

“I want to watch a movie in the new minivan!”

What a strange concept. A new twist on drive-in movies?

Why did I ever agree to that feature? Sigh…

Princess Erika

With much chagrin and very little humor, I have entered the minivan world for the first time in my forty-seven years of life. Worse yet, I am selling my sports car, a beautiful 1987 BMW L6. I thought when you got near fifty, you did it the other way around? No wonder I am always so confused.

The truth is I have always loved vans almost as much as I love my sports car. In fact, I have owned two VW Camper vans over the last ten years, so technically you might call them a minivan. I called them campers, but my students called them creeper vans. Go figure!

My wife is nearing the end of this round of chemo, and we are hopeful life may return to normal in the not too distant future. I have released another Onyalum Wars blog and wrote two chapters in the two novels I am currently working on. Don’t ask why there are two, I am still trying to figure it out myself! I am also scheduled to compete in the first ever Rocky Mountain Book Signing Competition in September, so authorship moves forward. Okay, its me and two of my writing group buds, but hey, it is a competition!

All of this means it is time to get back on that writing horse and make some progress. For me, the writing is the best part of the experience. It is the ultimate freedom, if you write fiction, and it is still the best catharsis next to my new hobby, stargazing. However, we all know this is only part of the process, and like washing clothes is to fashion, there is dirty work that must be done.

Editing. Yes, the seven letter word that should be four. Wait, Edit is a four letter word? Anyway, we all shun it, despise it, avoid it, and worse, ignore it, but it is an author’s dirty little secret that cannot be avoided. I know, many of you are like, ‘Well, I write the novel and then go back to edit it, but it is so distasteful, I have a hard time completing it.’ Not surprising when you wait so long to perform your professional duty. I can hear your old English teacher rolling in her grave right now! Let’s hope she is not dead.

What did all those old English teachers tell us over and over again? Edit your work! Yeah, I am right there with you, but I have devised a way to make this process less burdensome and more productive so that when you finish writing, you’ll already have a nearly completed manuscript. After that, it’s on to proof-reading and you are done!

Oversimplifying? Maybe, but my process does work and breaks that monstrous editing beast into bite size chunks. Actually, I might blow chunks from that metaphor. Yuck! Better yet, it can also improve your writing process, as well. And if you call in the next five minutes, we’ll also send you the ‘get published in five minutes’ video for free!

Tongue-in-cheek aside, this process can make you far more productive while helping you improve your writing along the way. By the end, you barely need to edit anything as your writing quickly improves. Okay, enough of the upsell, here is the process.

When I write, I like to think in terms of chapters. After all, they are nice logical blocks of writing. Though many will take weeks to complete, they are a milestone I work towards. So, when I complete a chapter, I edit that chapter before starting the next one. I only do a single pass edit, very manageable for a chapter. At most, it usually takes about thirty minutes to edit a chapter, depending on the number of pages.

This is a small price for the benefit you will get out of it. First, a little time usually passes between when I complete a chapter and when I start a new one. Because of this, the storyline has lapsed slightly in my mind from the previous chapter. Editing that previous chapter right before I start the new one adds transitional consistency between the chapters, making the story more cohesive.

In addition to this consistency in your writing, by doing an editing pass before you start writing seems to make my newer writing a little better. The process of wordsmithing and sentence restructuring on the old work carries over into the new work, thus producing a slightly higher level of writing than I might have had otherwise. I realize this is a bit subjective, but I really do believe this effect does exist.

Okay, I continue this process for each chapter as I write the novel. But wait, there is more! Since I am part of a writing group, I post each chapter on our group blog site for the other members to read and comment on. Because of this, I always edit that chapter one more time before hitting the post button on the blog site. This go round, it takes even less time since I have already edited it one time before.

I realize that for some of you, this seems excessive, but trust me when I say you will be glad you did this editing while you go rather than waiting until the end. Nasty grammar and spelling is easily caught, and the story seems to flow more readily without those pesky consistency problems that can creep into even the best writer’s work. Again, think of it as your weekly laundry that must be done despite how distasteful it is. Yeah, some of you may have guessed, I am doing my laundry as I write:)

Now, assuming you bought into this process, there is more yet to do. You see, after I have written about half the book, I want to go back through all that work and get the big picture of the novel so far. This means I edit from the beginning to the halfway point one time before I continue. This will catch more of the those consistency errors and also give you an ‘enjoyment’ measurement. After all, if you don’t like what you are reading, why will your readers? Look for slow parts that don’t add to the story as part of this pass, timing is important!

Finally, when you have finished the last page, go back through the last chapter before going back through the entire manuscript. This is your final edit pass before you begin the proof-reading process that is also an important part of your writing. Since you have been editing as you go, this final edit will go quickly, thus saving you from that massive anxiety facing those who waited until the end before editing.

Let’s summarize the process assuming we are writing a ten chapter novel (big chapters):

  • Write chap 1 – Edit chap 1 – Edit chap 1 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 2 – Edit chap 2 – Edit chap 2 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 3 – Edit chap 3 – Edit chap 3 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 4 – Edit chap 4 – Edit chap 4 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 5 – Edit chap 5 – Edit chap 5 – Post to blog
  • Edit whole manuscript
  • Write chap 6 – Edit chap 6 – Edit chap 6 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 7 – Edit chap 7 – Edit chap 7 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 8 – Edit chap 8 – Edit chap 8 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 9 – Edit chap 9 – Edit chap 9 – Post to blog
  • Write chap 10 – Edit chap 10 – Edit chap 10 – Post to blog
  • Edit whole manuscript

I would characterize this as the minimum level of editing that you should shoot for while writing the novel. If your writing group provides feedback on errors, then you may choose to go back and fix those, doing another edit pass to boot. This is your choice, but either way you have taken that editing beast and cut it down to size while improving your writing.

It is a win-win, but requires discipline on your part. So, how do your integrate this into your writing process? Easy, you add it to your task list in Excel that you already created to manage your Appointment To Write! By placing it in this list, you will have a regular reminder that you should edit after you have checked off that ‘Write chapter 1’ item in your list.

Of course, I haven’t told you what to edit or what to do when you proof read the manuscript, but hey, those are food for future posts, so come back again for more sage advice. In the meantime, keep your Appointment To Write faithfully, and don’t forget to edit that laundry … I mean writing.

Now, where is that Cinderella movie again? Hey, wait a minute, is this a new alternative to the afternoon nap? Uhmm, probably not. Being a parent is too much work! Sigh …