The Meaning of Words – Editing Tips

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.
– Robert Cormier

Writing is story telling. Writers, regardless of our discipline, need to pick not a correct word but the best possible one. In the legal profession, there’s a growing trend calling for plain writing. Courts have held that the word “solicit” is ambiguous because it has more than one meaning. “Exclusive” can mean “concurrent.” No wonder the English language is so hard. My writing must express what I mean clearly and effectively regardless of who reads it. Making my meaning clear is part of the editing process.

So how does the word “shall” end up meaning “may”? Context. When a sentence read as a whole expresses an option rather than a directive, “shall” means “may”. What does this quirk of the courts have to do with editing? Everything. Word choices matter.

When talking about writing and editing, Lisa Scottoline,, says to give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft. Do this. It’s easier to finish a story if you’re not worrying about “perfect.” Errors are fixed when you finish the first draft. Editing transforms that crappy first draft into a polished project. So how do I edit to take a diamond in the rough to a polished gem? I usually follow this line-editing procedure:

(1) Spell check

An obvious step, but people forget to do this.

(2) Search for :

a. common homonyms to ensure I used the proper word;

b. the verb “to be” in all its forms and passive voice;

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than acting. Passive voice will often use a “to be” verb. Examples:

The ball was thrown – passive voice with a “to be” verb
Pete threw the ball – active voice

c. words ending in “-ly”.

I don’t have any objection to “-ly” words, but often a stronger word can be used. “He slunk around the corner” is a stronger sentence than “he walked stealthily around the corner.”

d. pronouns to ensure who or what they refer to is clear;

Be careful with pronouns. Writing clearly means ensuring the reader knows what each pronoun refers to. When two same-gendered characters. or characters with unisex names interact, you will need to be mindful that your pronouns refer to the character you intend them to.

(3) similes.

A common writing “rule” is to avoid similes or clichés. There’s nothing wrong with a good simile. But good is the key word. Entrenched similes become clichés. “In for a penny, in for a pound” is one.

Using a cliché can help you if you turn the saying on its head. Instead of saying that “every cloud has a silver lining,” you could say, “every cloud has a lightning bolt with my name on it.” By changing the meaning of this tired expression, I’ve added interest to the writing.

(4) Read for description enhancement by word choice, and context to ensure I haven’t inadvertently changed meaning.

The sentence “Pete walked into the room” conveys a different image than “Pete stumbled into the boardroom.”

Specifics matter. The first example – Pete walked – gives the reader no additional information. The sentence paints with just a pencil.

“Pete stumbled into the boardroom,” on the other hand, triggers associations. It’s painting with oils. He stumbles and the reader wonders if Pete’s drunk, injured or been pushed. By placing Pete in a “boardroom”, I can see Pete in his a suit, and imagine the large mahogany table surrounded by a dozen black chairs and dark paneling on the walls. I can add a twist by changing the ordinary images the words convey. I can grab the reader’s attention if Pete is wearing rags when he stumbles into the boardroom. Similarly, if the room is a “board room” full of surf boards, the words convey different images. The subtle differences in meaning we can convey with the right word is why writers are always told to “show, not tell.”

(5) Grammar check.

I know it seems like a lot of work, and it is, but the finished product will be better for the effort. Once I’ve line-edited, I can strengthen the story by context editing for plot holes, character inconsistencies, tension and other craft issues.
Plain writing doesn’t mean boring. It means using each word to its maximum advantage to produce clean, clear and professional prose.

Making Time to Write During the Holiday Season

It’s that time of year again: Christmas. I have a million deadlines at work, presents to buy (and wrap) and a ham to order. I have to decide whether to risk putting up a Christmas tree or to avoid it in the interests of not giving the cat an enormous plaything with removable parts. The rainy season is about to begin so I need to get the gutters cleaned. I have to find a new dog groomer, buy printer toner, get the carpets cleaned… If you have kids, they’re probably already on holidays and you’re now a fulltime taxi driver, money distributor and all-around entertainment machine. And, somehow, we’re also trying to write. Insane? Perhaps. Achievable? Yes, but only with the right plan in place.

Step 1: Decide your priorities

Are you going to commit to writing during the Christmas season? If not, don’t feel guilty – perhaps this is a time when other things need to take priority. But either way, make a decision up front. If you’re choosing not to write right now, set a date when your normal routines will resume.

Step 2: Check the schedule

Look at your schedule and find the days or times when you can most realistically expect to get in some writing time. Block out that time in your schedule and treat it the same as any other appointment. Don’t forget about those little pockets of time which are so easy to fritter away without noticing: waiting for guests to arrive, those precious minutes in the early morning before the household awakes, time spent waiting for dinner to cook. If twenty or thirty minutes a day is all you can find, then lock that time in and protect it.

Step 3: Set goals

This is a crazy time of year so set smaller goals than usual. There’s no point aiming for 3,000 words a day if you know you will be lucky to find half an hour to yourself. Be realistic: aim for half a page, 500 words, one scene. Whatever you can reasonably achieve in the time you’ve blocked out in your schedule. Alternatively, work on small editing tasks so that you can cross individual items off your “to do” list.

Step 4: Enlist the troops

Make sure your family knows what your goals are. Add your writing time to the family calendar and then consider how your family can contribute. Can someone else put on a load of washing? Who can be appointed Chief Fixer of the Leftovers, responsible for finding all of the half-eaten stuff in the fridge and setting it out for dinner?

Step 5: Make time to relax

If you’re running around in a panic because you have three million things to do and you can’t stop going over your mental “to do” list, you can hardly expect to be able to focus on your writing. So take some time out. Write down all of those things in your head so you don’t have to remember them. Give yourself time for a long soak in the bath or to read a book or go for a massage. We’re all stressed to the hilt at this time of year so find some time for you, not just your writing.

Step 6: Don’t forget Christmas

Don’t let yourself get so caught up in trying to meet your goals that you forget what time of year it is: Christmas. This is a time for friends and family, a time to take stock and look forward, a time to be thankful for what we have.

This is my final scheduled post for this year so I wanted to wish all of our Fictorians readers a very merry Christmas. We have big plans for our little blog next year, including regular guest posts and a new regular feature dedicated to the art of storytelling. See you in 2012!

Failing with Grace

…Wow. Words I never thought I’d type. Ever.

“I Suck.”

We’ve all been there. You probably deleted something you spent hours on and replaced it with those two simple words.

Ugh.

So yeah. I failed NaNoWriMo for the first time in like five years. And that hurt worse than breaking bones, burned more than the fire in my hearth, and all around just made me feel like a total and incomplete waste.

But I shouldn’t feel this way. I know. You tried your best, you gave it your all. Better luck next time, champ.

Even in my failure though, I accomplished something that many people never thought they could do. And for 30 days I was a champ.

My total writing output for the month was a little over 60,000 words. But that’s winning, isn’t it? You’re supposed to write only 50,000!

My NaNo this year was to finish my novella and write the first half of a standalone novel all the while outlining and index carding two other books.

Way too much on my plate. In the end, I charted 37,258 on my standalone and mixed the rest up with my novella and a couple of index cards and a sample chapter or two for Night Watch. And redesigned my webpage. That was excruciating.

If writers are gluttons for punishment, and even a tad sadistic with what they do to these poor little characters on paper, than web designers are masochists. And my heart goes out to them.

Seriously. That stuff is hard.

But, now my grand total on the standalone is 25,111. Don’t ask. The pruning sheers were excellent. And justifiable.

Given all the freak accidents and bad luck that befell me this month, 25,111 is something to be proud of.

Then why don’t I feel like such a hero?

Because I don’t have anything to show for it.

Except for 25,111 words?! That’s more than most people write in their lifetime.

I think part of it stems from my reckless abandon as I chased the finish line and impulsively checked my word count every five minutes.

I wrote scenes that were 1,000 words long because they needed to be 1,000 words long. I didn’t force myself to stretch a paper thin premise for an extra 600 words that I knew it didn’t need.

Because what would that accomplish? A little check mark on my daily planner.

Big stinkin’ deal.

I can’t help but prune as I go along. Even when I turn spell check off, I still see that tiny little oopsie and I go crazy. Out, damned spot!

Were they distractions? Yup. Were the necessary distractions. You’re damn right.

I’ve never “not finished” a book because I got hemmed up on the distractions of the craft. I’m the type of person that would prefer to do something write (yes!) the first time rather than go about and redo it six times when it could have been perfect on the first.

I know this NaNo will get finished. It just won’t be done for the month of November.

Because you can’t microwave dinner and call it a gourmet meal, no matter what the pretty packaging will try to convince you of.

And even though I spent a good three hours designing a pretty cover that I hoped to have on a printed ARC for next week, it’s okay. Because I know something that pretty deserves to be on something that twisted.

But, when it’s done and I approve, I know it will go next to all my other books. If I’m going to put my little pile of dreck next to Stephen King and Jeff Abercrombie, then you can bet I’m going to do the best I can to make it FIT on that shelf.

You can’t dress up a rusted out Beetle to make it look like a brand new Benz.

And my little books keep company in high society on my shelf.

So, I won, even though I failed. But I won. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but it does. The point is, you don’t need one month out of the year to prove you can write. You can do that every month. And every day. Even if you failed, you still accomplished something.

And something is better than nothing.

So, did you guys win NaNo this year? What beat you down? Did you celebrate your success?

 

Filtering Out the White Noise

All artists borrow -or, let us be honest: steal – from other creative types. A pleasant word for it is inspiration. It simply cannot be helped. As creative types ourselves watching, reading, listening; it can be like flipping on a switch. Other artists become our mentors. We may like the prose or world building of a specific author, the cinematography of an esteemed director, or the mood of a certain song. For us, this becomes creative fodder. We may seek to emulate the prose of the author or the complexity of her imaginary world, frame a written scene like a director’s shot, or set the same mood as the songwriter. Oftentimes, these stimuli even act as the beginning spark of a fabulous idea and kindle passion within us.

But, to me at least, there comes a time when enough is enough; I’ve taken all of the “inspiration” I can for a certain project and I need to filter out the external stimulus. At this point, anything further just becomes an extreme distraction – buzzing static or white noise.

For example, a few months ago I had the opportunity to play through some of Dark Souls on the PS3. The game was so uniquely somber and spooky that I couldn’t help but find inspiration. By the time I put down the controller, I had already begun fleshing out a new world and a short story to take place within it. This wasn’t a piece of fan fiction or anything related to the game itself, more a siphoning of the game’s mood into something wholly my own.

But as sometimes happens with new ideas, I didn’t get to it right away. A week or so went by and with it, work and responsibilities. If the game wasn’t necessarily fresh in my mind it was still there and the siphoned mood along with it, but it was fading day by day. What is worse, new experiences and new stimuli were gradually creeping in around the edges, tainting the original experience, spoiling the mood. I had started watching Doctor Who and the light hearted zaniness of that program was a stark contrast to the silent spookiness of Dark Souls.

My point is, I don’t think new experiences or new stimuli will altogether kill a previous idea that I liked, but if I am not carefully it can gradually erode the integrity. I think it is the same exact reason that I cannot write while listening to music with lyrics or with the television on. The distraction is too much and my train of thought is completely altered.

I suppose the trick is to be careful. It is great to be open to artistic stimuli, but at some point it might be best to shut it all off, at least until you can get a significant amount on paper.