The Shining

On January 24, 2014, Eliza asked this important question: Anyone have tips on editing? Whenever I read over my stories, all I can pick out are the things I did wrong. Paragraphs that I can delete, plot holes that need to be stitched up, scenes that just don’t make sense. But once you remove the awful parts, how do you shine it up and make it pretty?

E.S. Ivy wrote this in response: Maybe the following suggestions would help:
– check the dialogue, is it entertaining? Do the characters’ personalities show? Can you add humor in them?
– check a scene with your mind’s eye. Can you really “see” it? Can you add touches of description here and there?
– the important parts, the ending and climax etc.: are there places where you could foreshadow them?

I agree, except that I’m not always on board with foreshadowing. You can read my posts on the subject.

Negativity is built into revision by definition. We’re hunting for problems so we can fix them. Still, revision is my favorite part of writing, the most positive as far as I’m concerned. Once my plot is set, then all I have to do is make it better, make it shine.

For this post I’ll be writing about the polish, which involves the little adjustments we make after the major flaws have been cleaned up. If you’re interested in other aspects, check my earlier posts on the subject.

What I do the most is cut. The process is like sculpting in marble: We chop away at the stone blocking our image, and, as the chips fall, the beauty is revealed.

Here’s a sneak preview of the first paragraph of Stolen Magic. I don’t know how to indent, so I’m italicizing, but it isn’t italicized in the manuscript. First is the paragraph I sent my editor after her intial round of edits:

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ As the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose, she continued in her thoughts: Our heroine had become traveling companion to a noble ogre and assistant to a detecting dragon.

Below is the paragraph I sent her after the second round. My editor didn’t ask for these cuts. Read it and then I’ll say why I made them.

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.

In the first version I reassured the reader so that when the ogre and dragon appear, she isn’t worried. But I want her to worry! Why is the deck groaning? What’s causing the stink? These aren’t big anxieties, and they’re quickly put to rest, but still I’m eager to offer that tiny thrill.

Also, as I cut, the pace picks up. As long as I’m not deleting anything crucial to the story or to the development of my characters, a faster pace is an improvement.

Yesterday I received the copy editor’s response to the manuscript, and without prompting I made another slight change. See if you catch it. Here’s the paragraph again:

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returns to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she has become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.

Do you see? I changed to present tense in the narration, which seems more natural, more like the narrator of a play. If the copy editor or my editor disagree, I’ll be informed, and then I’ll decide.

(If I were changing the tense in the whole manuscript, that would be an important change, but here the story continues to be told in the past tense.)

These are the kinds of itty-bitty adjustments I’m thinking about at this point. Another one is word repetition, which my editor and copy editor are good at noticing. I’m getting better at it, too, and studying poetry has helped. The reader may not notice the repeated words, but she will probably glide along more smoothly without them. Going the other way, however, sometimes we want to repeat, for emphasis or rhythm. We may even create a repetition as we revise, for those reasons.

Obviously, the repetition of some building-block words–like the, he, she, it, and, and or–can’t be avoided and don’t need to be. But I do check to make sure I haven’t started sentence after sentence or paragraph after paragraph with the same one of any of them.

Name repetition is another kind of repetition that I look out for. For example, have I repeated my MC’s name three times in four paragraphs and it’s irritating? Can I replace one or two of those times with he or she without confusion?

A mistake I often make is taking actions or ideas out of order–in a small way. I just corrected an example of this in Stolen Magic. In the narration I’m revealing that Elodie and her friends are traveling by oxcart, and I explain who’s in which cart, and then, boom!, there’s a sentence that jumps ahead to camping for the night. It looked okay; they do camp. But it’s bumpy, so I moved the camping to the end of the mode of transportation.

We also need to look at word choice. Is this the right term to nail a feeling, a description, an action?

Am I weakening my prose with hedging adjectives. For example, the dragon emits an unpleasant sulfurous odor, which Elodie gets used to and even comes to like. But I had her almost like it, which doesn’t take a stand, so I got rid of the almost.

And of course, we have to clean up any niggling grammar errors, anything that might confuse a reader.

Here are three prompts:

• When my editor at the time wanted me to write The Princess Tales, she sent me several chapter books to read to familiarize myself with writing for that age group, which is younger than the full-length novel crowd. To really get inside the writing, I retyped one of the books in its entirety, absorbing vocabulary, style, sentence length. This exercise was more useful than simply reading the book, or even rereading it several times. So pick a book you love, one you think is well-written, and copy out, say, two pages by hand or on a computer. If you have time, do it twice. If you’re having trouble picking a book, may I suggest Charlotte’s Web, because the writing, in my opinion, is splendid? As you go along in whatever book you choose, ask yourself questions about why the author made the choices he did. You may find you disagree about some of them. That’s fine. You’re entering into a conversation with a book. Cool!

• Using my suggestions and E. S. Ivy’s, re-revise a page or two of a story of yours that you’ve already gone over. Is it “shinier” when you’re done than it was before?

• Your MC is in her room, suffering from the results of a very bad day caused by her own actions. She’s antagonized her friends and her family; someone is in the hospital because of her; and whatever else you come up with to increase her misery. A being (elf, fairy, alien, mad scientist, whatever) enters her room and offers her a do-over. She accepts, of course. Write the day as it played out originally and the do-over, and make it come out worse the second time, but not entirely because of her this time.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I was thinking…I've been reading through my book at the same time that my Mom reads it aloud to me, so that I can see how it sounds, and she seems to think that some of the sentences I have sound 'choppy' and hard to read sometimes. The thing is, most of the ones she talks about are the ones where I was probably 'trying to be fancy' about it. I just want to know if anybody can tell me the difference between a 'good, richly written' sentence and a 'too long, choppy' one.

    • I suspect "trying to be fancy" doesn't help, but would you be willing to post a sample "choppy" sentence here so we can read what they're like?

      A good general rule is to stick with one basic idea/concept per sentence.

  2. Interesting post. Unfortunately, I have never really gotten to the editing part. There were times when I did my writing on an old computer with no internet connection. I wanted to post some stories site, and the only way to do that was to completely retype it, and accidentally ended up with a second draft!

    I do have a problem and was wondering if anyone can offer me some advice. I want to finish something. Unfortunately, I have years worth of ideas that I am constantly playing with and never gotten down. Is there some method of getting this mess straightened out?

    • I'm terrible at finishing stories! I have files and files of stories without endings. My stock answer, when I tell myself that I REALLY need to finish something, is to write a piece of Flash, or even a Drabble. (a story of exactly 100 words.)

    • I've mentioned on another post-so sorry if this is repetitive for anyone-that I have a document I call my Story Garden. When I get a story worthy idea I put the title and one line description under Seedlings. If it grows to around 10,000 words, I move it to Sproutlings. Finished short stories are Shrubs and books are Trees. Keeping a list like this helps me from forgetting stories completely. Sometimes, I realize different seedlings can be grafted together to make a better tree. Seeing a sproutling separated from seedlings reminds me to finish it before I start on a new idea.

  3. This came into the website from Writer At Heart:

    I have a few questions for you… although they are totally random.

    1)Is possible to (co-)write a story book with three people each writing a chapter then the next person writes the next chapter? Although I've never heard of anyone doing this, my friends a I want to try it. I was just wondering.

    2)Is there an age limit/minimum to how old you have to be to publish a story? I think this makes sense… right?

    3)How does the whole publishing process work (do you email or mail the book, how long it takes etc.)?

    4)I'm writing about three/four girl meeting each other (who each have there out stories). Is this called a series or a trilogy? It sort of hard to explain, but during each of their stories, they meet each other at different times. In some of their stories it plays a huge part and others it doesn't as much.

    • I can answer question 1—- YES! It is! The other day my friend showed me a book co authored by three writers who did that exact same thing! However, for the life of me, I can't remember a thing about it other than what I just typed…. shoot…

    • #2: There is no upper or lower limit on age in publishing. The test is the quality of the writing.

      #3: You might look at my two posts on the subject, but publishing is an enormous topic, a whole industry. There are many books on the subject. I suggest reading one of them, but make sure it was published recently (within the last two or three years). The field is changing.

  4. I have an answer to question 1!

    Yes, it is possible. My brother and my friend and I are doing a co-writing project right now that's set up exactly like that. And it IS possible. But it is pretty hard if you can't all talk to each other – I can only contact my friend through email, so it's hard to get her opinion on every step of the process. Its hard to keep her in the loop all the time, so my advice is that if at all possible, be able to talk to each other about the process – even by phone maybe.

    I've actually taken the co-writing process a step further by also being part of ANOTHER writing group which has four people, all writing a part of each chapter. That's pretty messy as well – and once again there's one girl we can only contact through email. Being unable to talk face-to-face to hash out our problems and get unstuck together is definitely hard. But I can safely say that it is possible, and it's kinda fun.

    Some day I would like to try a co-writing project where maybe one person does the plotting and character creation, one person does the writing process, and someone else edits. Does anybody have any experience with this? Do you think it would work?

    • Have you tried working on a google docs? That might work better than email.
      The Warriors books are written in a way similar to what you describe in the last paragraph. "Erin Hunter", the author, is an editor working with three other women. The editor creates the story lines, the other writers turn the ideas into books, and then she edits them so they don't sound clunky. I also read somewhere that Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew books, was at least thirteen different people under one name.

    • Actually, Draft is great for collaborations as well. I have used it several times, you just need an account and that just requires an email and password. I would definitely give it a try.

  5. Gail – wonderful advice, and it couldn't come at a better time (I'm editing my first book for the third time now). And, may I just say, I can't wait for Stolen Magic to come out? It already sounds great!

    On a different note, are you still taking poetry classes? I think that's so cool.

    • That sounds great! I love poetry!

      Actually, your past posts on poetry came in really handy just recently, and I have to tell you why. There is a lady I know whose husband passed away from two years ago. She has been grieving and keeping to herself, as the loss was extremely difficult on her. She spontaneously contacted me a little while ago because she knew I like to write poetry and, as it turns out, while she's been grieving, she's been writing volumes of the most inspiring, tear-jerking, beautiful poetry for the past two years. The power of poetry is amazing. Your posts helped a lot because she mostly writes free verse, and I'm not much of an expert on free verse, so thank you for your advice! Your insight and advice has helped tremendously.

  6. This post is so helpful. Thanks! Another book I found useful in helping with the editing process is Second Sight by Cheryl Klein, an editor at Arthur A. Levine. It was packed with great ideas.

  7. Mrs. Levine, so at one point on either this blog or in Writing Magic you mention how you like editing your novels better than writing the first draft. When I read that my first thought was, "that's crazy. Writing the first draft is so exciting while editing is just…not?" Then I started editing–really really editing–one of my drafts of a story. Oh my goodness I was so wrong. Now that I'm editing (like, hardcore-no-turning-back-super-involved-mega-editing) I love it. The pressure to actually write a great story is off, and I just get to sit back, enjoy the story I've written, and try to make it better. (Which is easier, since the story is really bad and practically everything makes it better) And it's soooo much fun. I think it might be because I now know that editing is more than just spellcheck and sentence tweaking. It's working story structure, character development, adding/deleting scenes… It's wonderful.
    I don't really know why I'm posting this…Maybe to convince others who don't like editing to give it a try? IDK. Take what you want from this comment, I guess…

    • I've been digging through that kind of hardcore editing too, for about a year and a half now. It's a good thing I don't hate doing it! It can be a ton of fun, I agree. There's a part of me that can't wait to draft a new story again (which might be a long ways away, considering I have two more books to edit/rewrite)… but at the same time it's so satisfying to transform a mediocre story into something amazing!

    • Wonderful, thank you! To any professional writers- how did you figure out what sort of content you would produce? I'm guessing a lot of writers just have a natural inclination for a particular genre/type of writing. However, I have a dilemma on my hands: I am about to graduate high school and go to college for writing, but I do not know whether to declare myself under English or Journalism.

      I write YA and children's fiction, but I also enjoy writing articles about my life experiences. I also went to a career counselor yesterday who said I should choose a practical major where I could put my writing towards a regular income. Additionally, when he asked me what I want to write, I hadn't the slightest clue what to say! I'm feeling very lost.

      My current plan is to submit my little articles and short stories to journals, magazines, and the like, and eventually to begin publishing novels and children's books, but it seems like that goal is too broad to go to school for!

      Any advice would be greatly appreciated, thank you for even reading this comment! 🙂

    • I would agree that it pays to have a backup plan. I've been writing for publication since 1999, and have only made over $1,000/year twice. Plus most writers don't have medical insurance. Writing's a tough field!
      (Best hobby ever, though. :))

    • I'd suggest delaying the decision if you can. After you've started college, or even once you're a year or two in, you'll know the departments better and what the teachers are like, and your choice will be better informed. It's wonderful that you enjoy so many kinds of writing, an advantage rather than the other way around.

  8. This came into the website:

    You know those times when you think you're writing one story, but after some outlining and ideas, you realize that you're actually writing another story all together? This is what I'm going through right now, and the problem is that I don't HAVE a problem. That is, I have no major external conflict. Do you have any ideas for conflict or ways to overcome this situation? Thank you! -Mikayla

    • Mikayla, what do your characters want? What is their object(s) of desire? Once you know that, what are some roadblocks you can put in between them and their goals? A piece of advice I've heard for putting conflict into your story is "Drive your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them." In other words, make it difficult for them to achieve their goals. Of course, you can't make it impossible — they have to find ways around the setbacks. But figuring out what they want, how they plan to get there, and what kind of conflicts you can throw in will go a long way in plotting your story! Hope this helps!

    • When you're stuck for conflict, ask, "What's the worst thing that could possibly happen?" If your story takes place on a boat, sink it. If a character is dying, kill the doctor. If a locked box holds the answers to their other problems, drop the key down a drain. Then your characters have a big new problem to face.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.