Editing: The Cut the Dead Wood Out Edition

Anyone who knows me (and probably a lot of people who don’t) and who has been listening to me bitch over the last month and a half has probably known that I’ve been armpit deep into a major edit.

Writers, here is the down lo: Editing a manuscript is not easy. Editing a first manuscript is enough to make you tear your eyeballs out with your jaggedly fingernailed hands (jagged because who has time for a manicure when there’s so much to do?) and throw said peepers across the kitchen and into the compost bowl. Your eyes will belong with the slugs and the fruit flies after a gazillion hours of cut and paste, semi-and-major plot shifts, and more cut, cut, cutting.

Obviously, it’s my feeling that my story is good. This story is my life, on more than one level. If I’d thought it was a stupid story, a horrible story, or a meager attempt, I would have cut my losses and erased all 175K words from my hard drive the weekend after attending my first writers conference. (In San Francisco. In 2009.) That weekend was an eyeball-opener, when I learned that what I thought was complete was so far from it, I might well have started from scratch. But you know me, hard-headed. I have a burning need to complete this novel to my satisfaction. And I would not have invested in critique groups, in associations, in conference fees, in online classes, in reference books, in following authors or studying (stalking) agents, or in editing services if I thought the book wasn’t worth it. (Let’s not add all those boxes of hair color to that fire. I have children I can blame my gray hair on.) No, I would have given up on fiction and continued my path as a wag and food snob and travel reviewer, with occasional forays into opinion pieces.

I still love food and travel, and I have plenty of opinions, but I made the choice to write a N-O-V-E-L. Writing fiction is an awesome choice, one fraught with pitfalls, one full of responsibility, and certainly not one taken lightly.

Editing is like trimming a tree. I personally subscribe to the Sukiya  or Japanese style of pruning. I try to get as close to the tree trunk as possible. I might sit under it or inside. I study whether the branches cross. I snip away anything that does, or any growth that might point down. Unlike Western gardeners, who whip out their electric trimmers and hack from the outside, I trim from within.

You know what they say, cut the dead wood out, new growth will take off.

Now that the major plot shift hurdle has been achieved, I’m back on the path of not-so-major editing. You know, tightening up my sentences, Things have been going swimmingly, at least the last few days. But in case you don’t get enough advice as to how to edit, here are a few tips that have worked for me.

1. Back story – do you need it? I thought I needed mine. After the twenty-fifth edit (or thereabouts), I realized why I wrote it in. Back story is comforting to a writer. It supports the reason for the character’s being in the writer’s mind. Other that that, you really don’t need it. The reader doesn’t need it. The reader first wants to be let in on your world. Your character must be sympathetic enough for the reader to want read on. Later on you can explain your character’s motivation by using the back story. LATER ON. I’m now in the process of eliminating all references to back story in the first part of my book. I plan on introducing some of it in the second and third parts. Where it belongs.

2. Passive verbs. Was, is, weak verbs, take them out. Change the sentence structure so that your verbs are meaty. You’re not going to eliminate all of those passive verbs, but you can definitely remove a ton.

3. Adverbs, adjectives – No, no, and no. In this current run through, I can see – clearly – too many descriptors. I’m taking out all that are unnecessary.

and finally…

4. Dialogue. It’s a good idea to read OUT LOUD your dialogue. I’ve done it several times already, but this last trip down the editing lane, I realized the speech of the son was rather stilted. Excellent grammar and good English, but not how a 20-year-old would speak. Even the socialite wouldn’t quite speak the way I had her speaking.

Keep in mind that I’m no expert and am only a student of the written word. And while the book’s not perfect – yet – I think I’ll still bask in the glow of my modest achievements.

Another Kernel of Wisdom via the San Francisco Writers Conference

I know. I am pitifully behind. That’s because I’m semi-recently returned from the 2013 San Francisco Writers Conference. Thanks to this great conference, my head is *b-u-r-s-t-i-n-g* with ideas. Unfortunately, having been out of town for over a week, the other areas of my life are bursting as well.

Before I forget, I would like to relay the best advice on storytelling that I have ever received, thanks to a SFWC workshop lead by Mary Knippel and Teresa LeYung-Ryan. These are two, very smart ladies, and I don’t love them because Mary and I shared lunch and Instagrams of Mark Hopkins’ famed room service hamburgers, or that Teresa is so effusive, she dragged me into a photo after last year’s workshop.

Are you ready? Because this is the wisest sentence I’ve ever heard about writing:

Someone we care about wants something very badly and is having a difficult time achieving his/her goal.

Honestly, it was a lightbulb-over-the-head moment. (Yes, I know. I’m slow. That’s already been established.)

Wiser words have never been spoken. Okay, so you can study hard and obtain a Masters of Fine Art in literature. You can take all the classes on story arcs and layering and the intricacies of denouement the world has to offer. You can belong to the critique group made in heaven (I’d have Edgar Allen Poe, Ayn Rand, and Carly Phillips in my fantasy crit group), or to national writers organizations. You could line the basement walls with past issues of Writers Digest. You might even be able to lock yourself in a room for eight hours straight with no internet and no distractions and tap at the keyboard until your fingers atrophy. You can hang out at conferences and learn from the best.

You can do all these things and more, but if your story cannot be told in this simple sentence, you don’t have a compelling story.

I grew up eons ago, when creative writing teachers claimed a good story had to have conflict – man against man, man against nature, or man against himself. I’m also a fervent believer of having a beginning, a middle, and an end. (You wouldn’t believe some of the writing I’ve read that has none of this.)

Someone we care about [protagonist] wants something very badly [possible end result] and is having a difficult time [the journey] achieving his/her goal.

It’s so simple, I’m wondering why I’d never considered it before. Like, DUH. No wonder I had a difficult time writing the first novel. (By the second one, I’d kinda-sorta figured it out. By the third, I’d fleshed out stories for each of my characters before sitting down to write.)

My new mantra also makes for an excellent measurement for the casual elevator pitch or for the first sentence of a query letter. Breaking down your story to its most basic form (a single sentence) crystallizes the concept, making it easy for the prospective agent to see what the heck your story is about.

I spent the plane ride back to Detroit devising a simple sentence to explain each of my novels. See?

Finding Cadence:

After her husband dies, Cadence Reed tries to find a new normal, but confronted with Carter’s secret life and with finances in disarray, she battles a powerful attorney (and once friend) for control.

Virtually Yours:

A bereaved parent wants to get closer to an online moms’ group, but traverses a minefield of secrets that could blow up the friendship, until the truth finally comes out.

Virtually Yours Forever:

Janna and Ashe are (finally) getting married – that is, if she can lose ten pounds, if Ashe can get over his cold feet, and if the Virtual Moms can book flights through a Snow-maggedon Nor’easter.

Acorns and Oaks:

Amberly Cooper escapes frozen Michigan to her tony life in LA despite a few minor roadblocks: her grandma is crazy, her mom doesn’t want to leave, her Cali friends are uninspired, and oh…she’s 14.

While these aren’t perfect, completing this exercise helped focus my attention on the story, the guts of the matter.

Everything else is icing.

 

The Importance of Continual Learning

Writing is a singular activity. It’s a solitary obsession. Sitting down to write a story or an article or a novel is not a team sport. The writer, like any artist, takes what I call are the little poofs of inspiration out of his mind, tempers and tests and does the fandango with it, before finally placing the art in a spot where others can see and experience.

We writers feel an inexplicable urgency to get the words out, sometimes with success, others not at all. Sometimes the work is solid, but needs a gentle, guiding hand. Other times, it needs a cattle prod and a machete.

Just because writing is singular doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. In fact, writing is such an encompassing task, I would recommend not flying solo. Since writing can be such a lonely business, it’s important to reach out for help in honing your craft. Even if you have an advanced degree in literature (I don’t), there is an importance in constantly learning.

I am not so full of myself that I believe my stories spring from my subconscious ready for an agent and a three-book deal.

It’s helpful to network with other writers. Some might even offer help by way of beta reading or critique. (Writers are busy and I wouldn’t ask; but if someone offers, I’ll probably take them up.) Even if they don’t offer personal critique, the writers I know have offered me a wealth of information on the skill of writing.

The fledgling writer should seek out classroom situations, whether traditional or not. There are always places where you can take classes, like colleges and even some community ed programs. But even if you have no time (like me) for a regular class room schedule, join a local writers group or an association where members will offer critique.

If you can’t make it to a class room, there’s a wealth of information online. Online classes offer the freedom of working at your own pace, while keeping you on a schedule that’s easy to manage. Thanks to the local president of the RWA who turned me on to the site, I joined Savvy Authors. Savvy Authors is one useful web site, featuring articles, contest leads, and classes and workshops. I’ve been in the Donald Maass’s The Breakout Novelist Workbook Workshop since the beginning of the year. I’ve had the book and the workbook for ages; it took the online class to provide the impetus to actually do the exercises. There’s plenty of critique and ideas, coming from writers from all over the globe.

In the past, I’ve also taken Jeremy Shipp’s classes online (Twitter @JeremyCShipp), and I would highly recommend taking it. So, I don’t write in his genre (mystery/fantasy/horror), but I’ve successfully applied his exercises to what I was writing, so successfully that I’ve used my exercises to spawn bits of other stories. I also enjoyed the class so much, I took it twice.

The amount of information out there is staggering. No matter where you turn for guidance, no matter which classes or workshops you take, there is always a value in education. As writers, we alone shoulder the responsibility for our growth and advancement.

The Art of a Creative Real Life

I am guilty about complaining about Real Life.

How can I not complain? I’m a busy girl, with lots of interests. I love learning about new things. I consider myself an artist. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a pen in my hand, or charcoal, or paints, or guitars, yarn, violins, hand shovels, fabric, beads, wire, jewels, or exotic food. I’m learning Japanese, in my car and via Rosetta Stone. I read like there’s no tomorrow, not only fun novels and engrossing literary fiction, but history books and biographies. The tired old adage of not having enough hours in a day doesn’t begin to describe the frustration I feel as minutes tick by and my List of Things to Do is not even approaching completion.

Let’s face it: mundane Real Life, with its responsibilities and drama, often keeps me from my Creative Life. There’s a lot of items on the “CON” side. I have kids – yes, they are grown, so what? grown up kids often have grown up problems – and a business – several, actually – and it all sucks up my time. I have a house (huge) and a yard (even huger), both of which require constant maintenance. On the flip side, the Real Life gig does pay the bills, a huge plus on the “PRO” side.

My one defense in the fight against Real Life doldrums is to approach Real Life with a different perspective. It’s really not so hard; you must be creative in order to obtain a creative Real Life.

It’s easy to find inspiration when you’re young and unattached, moody and naive, and infinitely more difficult, albeit not impossible, as you are weighed down by things like paying the rent and starting a family. When my kids were very small, I tapped into my creative side. I used to make their clothes, and of course, cooking is a wonderful way of crafting edible creations.

Soon my days became more harried and time evaporated, but I strove to make every action a creative one. I’m sure my son’s second grade teacher, Mrs. Siciliano, did not appreciate my heart-felt and inspired apologies for his abhorrent behavior, but hey, you do the best you can with what you have.

I’m flabbergasted by the number of people who sit in front of a device and play games or who are otherwise ‘entertained.’ Granted, I’m a huge offender. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of Facebook, TV, or video games (or a number of other mindless distractions) and spend their precious time wasting it away. I’m constantly amazed by people who see what I’m doing and declare, “I’m not creative at all!” I want to shake them silly and say, “Yes, yes, you are! Give yourself a chance.” A person doesn’t have to accomplish a task with pinpoint accuracy; the main thing is to try. The only way to get the juices stimulated is by making the attempt, or in my case, the many attempts. Learn from your mistakes; correct them, and move on.

My time is limited, but I don’t let the lack of it limit me. If the phone’s not ringing at work, I will twist up some wire while I wait for the action to begin. As much as I strive to carve out a niche of quiet for myself, I often don’t have time to pound out a chapter in one of my novels. If that’s the case, I might open one of my blogs (as I’m doing here) and write a few words, or take out my notebook and read what I’ve written in the past and jot down new ideas. I’ll use bits of time to research, update, and catalog.

Living a creative Real Life isn’t a given. It takes dogged determination and a desire to make everything and anything you might endeavor to do a work of art.

Isn’t that what life’s all about?

A Week of Frantic Writing/Editing

I’m feeling more like a REAL writer every day…

I just spent the last ten days going over FINDING CADENCE to get it into some sort of shape to send to world-famous, Alan Rinzler, editor to stars of the literary world. You know the ones: Tom Robbins, Toni Morrison, Clive Cussler – those kinds of literary luminaries.

I won Mr. Rinzler’s expert services during an eBay silent auction held by the San Francisco Writers Conference.

For those of you who have been following my search for Cadence (or not – who knows? you might have landed on this blog by pure coincidence), FINDING CADENCE was my first novel. Epic. 175K pages. Poorly written. I took every cliqueed broken rule and broke it some more. It was so awful, I couldn’t stand to look at it for more than 365 days. It was barely readable by me, so I wonder what my betas thought.

But…the story is a good one. It was salvageable. So with some trepidation, I opened the file back up last summer and plunged into the muck. I added more drama, more angst, more problems. I planned the story out better, making sure to weave in details I missed the first time. I cut, cut, and cut – especially the redundancies, the adverbs, and most of the telling. Then I cut some more.

Next I entered it into the SFWC contest. And it made it to finalist. Finalist!

Then I bid on Alan Rinzler’s editing, and I won the auction. I won!

Oh, my God. I won?

This is where the last ten days come into play. I was in the midst of changing the manuscript from third person, many POVs (too many if you ask me – my head was spinning) to first person. I had only completed a little more than one-third of the story at the time of the conference. So when I returned home, I spent every spare minute going over the rest of it.

I finished Wednesday night, and emailed the revised Cadence to Mr. Rinzler yesterday. It’s leaner (100K), meaner, but still needs a lot of work. Believe me, if anyone needs writing help, it’s me.

I need to add entire scenes I cut from those other POVs. Otherwise the story will be disjointed, as I used those other people to fill in the gaps of the story.

But my first plan of action was to deliver something to Mr. Rinzler. And I have.

It’s on to working on other things I’ve let slide. Laziness, other life, bad mojo…I can blame my lack of writing on lots of things, but it all comes down to me. I figure the rush I got from the conference won’t last long, so I might as well take advantage of it while I can.

San Francisco Writers Conference Recap

WOW. That’s all I could say for three days. However, now that the conference is over and I’ve marinated overnight, I’m ready to post my afterthoughts on this great event. Even though I didn’t win the fiction contest, I was honored to have made it to finalist.

First of all: write what you love and love what you write. Many writers say they are writing because “they have to” or some other noble cause (I was one of them), but really what writers do is write to entertain. They write to reach out, to connect to readers. That’s right, we write for totally selfish reasons — we want people to listen to us. Some writers think they can write for money. I suppose that is true in some cases, but not true in most. If traditionally published, a good run would be considered 3,000 books over ten years. That’s not a whole helluva lot. If you are going to write, make sure you love your words and make certain those words are fabulous. Don’t look for the magic pay off or the slot machine win, because that will likely not happen.

Second: keep learning. That’s right, you can never attain the pinnacle of knowing it all. For example, I attended a workshop this weekend on how to run a critique group. Now I’ve been a member of a critique group for about a year, but I had yet to know how to critique. In fact, that’s one of the things I find myself lacking. I’m poor at critiquing other people’s work. Now I know how. (Duh!) You can learn from books, true, but you can also learn online. Get on Twitter and follow a few writers and agents around. Click on their links when they post them, and read carefully. Better yet, join the San Francisco Writers University — it’s free, it’s going to be the Facebook for writers, and there’s all kinds of useful information to be had.

Third: keep the lines of communication open. Writers are quite a chummy set of people, even though many of us are introverted to an extreme. Reach out to other writers; you can learn so much from them. Last year, I learned how to write an appropriate pitch from four ladies who gave mine a thorough going-over. Make friends with other writers — you never know what they will have to offer to help you on your journey. This weekend, I found two writers who will give me a line on an illustrator for my cover.

Fourth: if you are a writer and can only attend one conference a year because of time constraints or expense, GO to THIS one. I belong to the Romance Writers of America, and would love to attend their conference because I hear it’s fabulous, but I can’t. One, it’s in July when my day job is uber-busy. I can’t get away. Two, I can only afford one conference. And Three, I really don’t write romance. The San Francisco Writers Conference covers many genres, many aspects of the writing process. This is my third year. Every year I wish I could attend every workshop offered, but of course, I’d have to be cloned.

A caveat: I have already registered for next year’s conference. If you’re interested, you must act quickly. They limit attendance to 300, and often reach full capacity like they did this year.

I want to see you there, not on a waiting list.