Category Archives: Editing

Embracing the Pain – Receiving Editors’ Feedback

EditsReceiving edits back from an editor is like opening a Christmas present on the set of a horror film: exciting and terrifying at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong. I love editing. The process of revising and editing and polishing a story transforms it into its final, awesome form. It’s like taking a house that’s got external construction mostly complete, and internal walls roughed in and completing the construction, painting, and furnishing every room to make it a livable home.

Even so, that first scan of an editor’s comments can be painful.

As much as I know the draft I submitted is far from perfect, there’s a part of me that still clings to the hope that the editor will simply say, “Wow. I’ve never read anything quite that amazing. I can’t imagine how to make that better.”

Never going to happen. Instead, a good editor will shine a spotlight on every flaw, point to every weakness, and ask for clarification of every inconsistency. They’ll highlight every issue part of me was secretly hoping they’d never notice.

Feedback is something we authors desperately need and usually crave. When we’re new, we’re usually terrified by it, sometimes take it personally, treat is as an assault, or embrace the righteous anger of a parent protecting their precious child. All the wrong answers.

I still feel flashes of that sometimes when I’m first reviewing edits, and I’ve learned to laugh at myself. My pride is meaningless, my vanity useless. The story is what matters, and a good editor helps identify weaknesses and make suggestions to help that story fulfill its potential.

They do point out the things that do work, and that’s also extremely helpful, but the work and the growth comes from the constructive criticism.

So I always complete an initial quick scan of the feedback, then take a break, breathe deep, consider what I read, and sometimes take a walk as I mentally update my assessment of what I had thought I had written to the reality of what I had actually produced.

Only then can I get to work.

That’s when the fun begins. When I embrace the feedback, accept responsibility for the flaws, and embrace the work required to fix and improve the story, it’s always amazing how fast new insights and ideas flow. Sometimes that’s the point when I finally understand what story I’m really trying to tell. That’s when I can make it amazing.

Some authors are smarter than me, and perhaps their experience with editor feedback is more like a gentle, encouraging massage. For most of us, it’s a bruising beating that helps us grow stronger.

PerfectionWithout fail, when I keep an open mind and honestly review suggestions and critiques, not only do I see ways to better tell the story, but I gain insights into my own weaknesses as a writer. With every story, I grow. I discover blinders that I had on that prevented me from seeing weaknesses, I gain insights into higher forms of craft, and strengthen my skills.

So next time my manuscript will finally be perfect on the first try!

Or not. And I’ll fix it.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank MorinRune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Contemporary Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Revisions, edits and proofing. The real work of writing.

Writing can be, and frequently is, easy. At least that first draft is. Sometimes a writer can fall into a creative “zone” and the words will just flow. And flow. And flow. I’ve seen many, many writers post on Facebook how they churned out 2,000, 3,000, even 4,000 words or more in a day.

I can do that. I do it when I really sit down and write.

But the question isn’t how many words you write in a day. The real question is how many words you’ve written in a day, you keep in the final version of the manuscript.

I tend to view writing as similar in concept to sculpting in clay. First you have to get the clay. That’s the first draft. You have to just keep churning out story elements, characters, plot points, settings, all the stuff that makes up a story. It all piles up into a sort of rough facsimile of the story you really want to tell. Eventually you complete the first draft, and can go grab a beer and congratulate yourself on your pile of clay.

But it’s not half done yet. Unless you are one of those truly rare writers who spew out nearly finished prose. Most of those writers have written and published lots of stories, and have learned how to get that first draft much closer to the final form.

The rest of us have to take that first draft and start turning it into something presentable. And that means taking the editor’s sculpting tools and carving off bits here and there, building up other bits, reshaping a limb or a nose… For many of us that is more of a challenge than the initial fountain of words that leaped up from our keyboards.

But sculpting usually takes several passes, each one more detailed, with more attention to perfecting the form and enhancing the presentation of our work. My approach is to take several editing passes through the, I hope, successively less rough drafts of the story. The first pass mostly focuses on big things. Do the character arcs work? Is the conflict compelling? Does the plot work, or are there gaping holes, or plot points leading to nowhere?

Only when I’ve addressed the story at that level will I do a grammar and spelling pass. Or two. It’s all too common for me to learn that in my first pass, I not only missed a few things, but I added some new errors in fixing the previous ones.

Then I do a pass focused entirely on converting passive to active voice, looking for occurrences of words like “seems” or “realized” or many other words I keep in a list that are all too easy to fall back on while writing, but leave the prose flaccid.

Then I do a pass focused on character dialog. Did I use the right vernacular for the different voices of the different characters? Did I accidentally give my New England bookkeeper the voice of a Louisiana shrimper? It happens more than you realize.

Then I do a pass focused on contractions. It always amazes me how many “can not” or “will not” uses I find in my writing. I know better, but I still find them. Lots of them. Trimming those syllables really tightens the text, especially dialog, where a “will not” comes across as pretentious or commanding.

Finally, when all of that is done, I move the still-rough draft to my iPad so I read it in a different format, and do my best to read it as if I had never encountered it before. I might do that three times before I’m satisfied it’s clean enough to pass my editorial expectations.

Then I send it to an editor.

Don’t Revise – Plot the Next Novel!

In my previous post, Know Your Story – 5 Simple Steps, I talked about creating a scene-by-scene outline from your first draft. The purpose of this exercise was to see the story’s structure. Structure included the shape of the plot itself and whether the scenes were structured in a balanced manner with a focus on exposition, action, dialogue, and reflection. I still recommend doing this to familiarize yourself with what you actually wrote as opposed to what you thought you wrote.

This is especially important if you’re writing a series because every book needs to build on the previous one. So, know what you wrote but don’t revise it just yet. PLOT your next book first before you begin revisions.

There is a theory out there not to write the next book in the series before the first one is accepted by a publisher. That’s silly, for so many reasons. Today, we have the option to self-publish. Even if a publisher accepts Book 1, that is not a guarantee that they’ll want Book 2. That depends on sales. But my main reasons for finishing a series, with or without a publisher are: a) I have momentum, a writing style and my characters and I understand each other well. There is no guarantee that I can pick up that vibe in the future; and b) the story is in my head, as is the character’s voice and a series is but one longer story to me. I have to write it; and c) I have publishing options and if a publisher publishes Book 1, and not the rest, I can build on whatever momentum I have and release the rest of the series.

But why plot the next novel before revising the finished one?

The future devils are in yesterday’s details!

I know an author who wrote the first book which was accepted by a publisher. In the throes of edits and final copy, the author set to work on the next book. Now, this author had ideas for the rest of the five book series and it was on that basis that the publisher bought the series. But, she didn’t have them plotted out. She didn’t need to because the concept and her writing were strong enough. The problems began when she created a more detailed outline for the next book. Details, information, actions, clues – all the things that could have foreshadowed and been used in the second book had not been included in the first book. She had written herself into corners or didn’t have the necessary tools for her characters in the second book. Creativity took on a new meaning and it was a challenge, albeit a doable one.

That is why I recommend outlining the next story before you revise the current story. Know the key plot points such as the beginning, the climax and the end. Jot down some ideas of how the protagonist and antagonist will arrive at the climax. What tools will they need? What characteristics will they require? Does the setting need to be described more richly so there aren’t any convenient contrivances? Are the subplots and relationships strong enough to sustain in the next story? Is this story’s world, and the characters rich enough to continue the melodramas and keep tension in the next novel?

When revising a story set in a series, the questions and story problems aren’t confined to the single novel. They affect the entire series and most importantly, the first book sets the stage, so make certain that the stage is set well, with enough detail, information and tools so that you don’t write yourself into a corner.

Always remember that the future devils are set in yesterday’s details!

How do I know it’s a Rough Draft?

 Guest Post by Barb Galler-Smith, Fiction Editor, On-Spec Magazine

I’ve been asked how do you know when a story is ready for submission? As an author, it’s always the moment I’m finished. Fortunately another part of my brain (the editor) stops me before I make too big a fool of myself and actually submit it before I’ve done a little bit more work.

Different editors and authors will tell you slightly different things. In my years with On Spec magazine I’ve learned a lot about stories, about when they are ready, and when they only appear to be ready.

What is a first draft? Well, it’s not usually the first thing you put on paper. That would be the “almost” draft, sometimes known as a sketchy outline. Then you might write down the things that fill in that sketchy outline. This might include a note to yourself to check some details, and plot points, and character notes, and the major theme, the premise, and the major conflict(s). THEN you have a pretty decent outline. If you are a “pantser” this process is a little different. But either way, the next step is the “Ugly Draft”.

The “Ugly Draft” is exactly that. It’s the words as they come out of your head without the editor even being aware you are writing. You’ve snuck it in under that annoying part of the brain that stops you from finishing a complete sentence without going back to fix something other than the momentary spelling error. It’s full of homophones, other mistyped words that are actually words (eg. in writing this my brain typed “being aware” but my fingers typed “vein aware”). The end of the Ugly Draft is an easy, but involved process.

You spell check. That can fix a lot.

You search for your buzzwords (that, was, were, could, should, nodded, turned… you get the drift?).

You search for all useless words that end with ly or ly. or ly? etc. These -ly words are adverbs that usually (not always) add nothing. Another useful search is for “weasel words” such as also, very, though, some, or many. These are not specific and good writing demands clarity and specificity. I also like to search for “like” because it’s often used in common speech as a conjunction, which it isn’t.

So you’ve done all your checking and searching and on the computer screen the copy looks pretty darned good. This leaves you at the beginning of the Rough Draft.

You turned off the grammar checker while spell checking because fiction is loaded with fragments, especially dialog, and having that pointed out on 2/3 of the work is irritating. Of course, when the grammar checker was turned off, you also ended up with a few fragments that were just wrong, a few run-on sentences, a few sentences so unwieldy their meaning was lost, some misplaced modifiers, actions out of order and a dozen more foibles.

The real Rough Draft is that draft in which you fix all those things you didn’t notice before to the very best of your ability. After that, the process varies a little bit depending on how you plotted, researched, or even how you think (sequentially or randomly) which can affect the order of sentences, actions, and scenes.

Let it sit for a couple of days (unless you waited until the last minute as I usually do and cranked it out in an afternoon–outline, ugly, and rough all in one).

Then send it to one beta reader who will read it and let you know if it all makes sense. This is important. That reader need not be an editor or another writer. That person does need to be able to tell if a story works or not, and preferably why it may not work, where it slows (if it does), or anything else critical to the story. If you have written science fiction and don’t hold a degree in astrophysics or biochemistry, you might also want to run it by someone who passed physics or biochemistry in the past five years. Or do a heck of a lot of research for that one line in the story!

After that, you fix anything wrong with it. At this point you also have to decide if the beta reader is right (usually) or is out to lunch and knows utterly nothing about your art (not usually). Voilà! You have done every single thing you know how to do to make the story perfect. You now have a finished FIRST DRAFT!

If you have a lot of short story writing experience and some good story-telling skills, this could also be your Submission Draft.

You may have noticed I said Submission “Draft”. Yep, and this is where I get your story in my Submission piles.

So how do I know it’s not ready?

The list is long:

You sent an Ugly Draft. You sent a “First Draft”. It doesn’t follow our specific guidelines regarding format, word count limits, preferred spelling and usage. It’s not “Speculative” not “fiction”. It’s SF/F elements aren’t integral to the actual story. It’s full of profane and vulgar language for NO reason. It’s got gratuitous violence, graphic sex descriptions, and anything else that could overstep a general PG-13 rating and for NO reason. It’s hate-mongering. And as the King of Siam in the musical used to say “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”.

We also note things that are more subtle.

1) It takes too long to get going. The actual story starts somewhere around the middle of the submission. That means there’s a whole lot of back story we just do not need there.

2) The pacing slows to a crawl in the middle. This usually happens because nothing is happening.

3) Talking heads in which there is no story along with it. Nothing happens.

4) Dialog has characters telling each other things they already know, but the author wants to makes sure the readers know this too.

5) It’s dull.

6) It’s really dull.

7) It’s really really dull. (You get my point? Something needs to happen!)

8) The characters have no aspect that the readers can relate to. Some of my favourite characters from On Spec stories: a puppet, a contract killer, a senior farm wife from Saskatchewan. They share nothing in common but each imparts a sense of humanity I can relate to.

Nothing is ever sent to the editor without flaws. It’s our job then to read through a good story, and find those places in which our skill or knowledge can make a story better. Our goal is to make that story better for everyone–the author, editor, and most importantly, the reader who WILL notice little things. We want that reader to get to the end and say “That was a satisfying read!”

So if you have done the best you possibly can (and do not over edit it yourself–but that’s another blog!), please consider it YOUR Submission Draft. Send it out. While it’s out there, write another story. Then another.

Bottom line, how do I know it’s ready and not “rough”? I know when it propels me from start to finish on the first reading. I miss little things like minor typos, unwieldy sentences, odd settings, and minor science errors. It’s ready because it’s a solid, interesting story.

 
Barb Galler-Smith resides in Edmonton. She’s been an editor with On Spec magazine since 2008. She’s co-author of the Druids Saga historical fantasy trilogy: “Druids”, “Captives”, and “Warriors”–all available from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. She is an award-winning writer and has judged both Canadian and international writing competitions. She loves reading short fiction, teaching writing, and freelance editing.