Self help

Recently, I read these two words: slight shock, and was put off. I suppose a shock can be slight. We hear of mild shocks in laboratory experiments, but in fiction the word slight weakens the word shock, and a different noun would be more accurate. Surprise might do, or something else. This is where our enormous language and a thesaurus can help. Or we can let it be a full-scale shock, nixing the slight.

I’ve written before about weakening words, but I’m guessing seeing that slight shock startled me into writing a refresher. We should be suspicious of such words, like slight, and also almost, nearly, half, a little, which can sap the vigor of our prose. These vocabulary miscreants are handy words, and sometimes they’re exactly right. We should just train ourselves to be aware when we use them and weigh whether they’re needed.

Words that punch up can also weaken, words like very and extremely. For example, if we write, The chicken-pot pie was extremely (or very) delectable–delectable says it all. We don’t need extremely or very.

My lecture segues nicely into this post’s question.

On July 31, 2016, Taryn Chan wrote, My older brother is the only other person besides me who has read my story. He says he likes it and there is nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, I know better than that. My parents have no time to read my story, and my friends aren’t interested. Is there a good method for editing a story by yourself?

Christie V Powell responded: A few people have mentioned different websites where you can connect with people. The NaNoWriMo forums are a good one. As far as editing for yourself, I like It’s a free site that will highlight some of your mistakes and helps make your writing better. There are a lot of similar sites (, for instance), but most require money.

Thank you, Christie V Powell, for these links!

I’m revising Ogre Enchanted, my Ella Enchanted prequel, right now before sending it off to my editor. Sadly, it’s in rough shape. A love story, but the romantic part isn’t right. My characterization of one of the major characters is muddled. The pace is slow in spite of time pressure on my MC.

How do I know all this?

Well, my editor has seen parts already. But I’d know even without her input, because I’ve been writing for almost thirty years (published for almost twenty). I know where I go astray, and pacing, for instance, is a regular issue.

So experience is a good teacher. By doing, we get better at diagnosing our flaws.

However, outside opinion can speed the process. A teacher can be recruited when family members are less than helpful. (It is kind, however, of Taryn Chan’s brother to be her reader and to be encouraging even if he’s light on the criticism. Encouragement is a wonderful boost to keeping us going.) For those who are home schooled, a librarian may be asked. Friends may also be helpful. We don’t need to be critiqued by other writers necessarily. The most important qualification we’re looking for is love of reading. A good reader is likely to notice where our story loses its way.

And the other most important quality is kindness. Global criticism (“This is lousy,” for example) isn’t useful. We don’t learn from being ripped apart.

Sharing our work online may be helpful, but I worry about the kindness factor. We know the people when we share work in person. An anonymous online critiquer may not be worthy of our trust. I don’t say not to use such resources, I just caution caution. If you’re not sure about feedback, if it doesn’t ring true or even seems spiteful, I suggest getting an opinion from someone you know. After that, I’d double down on the caution.

Having said that, I am constantly delighted with the quality of the comments, the thoughtfulness, the knowledge, of the people who post right here. If you’ve met first here and then started sharing work through NaNoWriMo, I think you can move forward with confidence.

There are autodidacts who like to go it alone. My husband is one. When he wants to learn, he reads on the subject. He may look online, too, but he doesn’t take classes–and he becomes adept anyway.

If, for whatever reason, you are on your own, there are things you can do. For one, seek out good writing. If you’re  writing for children, the Newbery and National Book Award winners are sources for models of excellent prose–and excellence in all aspects of storytelling. If you’re writing for adults, the National Book Award is still good. When I was getting started, I read many Newbery winners and runners up. To mention just one author, the young adult writer Virginia Euwer Wolff is incapable of an awkward sentence. I suggest reading her books, which aren’t fantasy. My favorite is The Mozart Season.

I hate to say this, but mediocre prose gets published. Some writers are great at plot and character, not so much at deathless writing. We can read and enjoy the less stellar, but it’s nice to be in the presence of greatness sometimes. And greatness rubs off.

If something grabs you, take a few minutes to analyze what’s going on. Look at sentence length, sentence variety, vocabulary. Think about what grabbed your attention.

If you love a writer, see if he or she has written about writing itself. Some of us have, but, alas, many books about writing fiction we find online are by people who have never written a novel, so be alert. It’s possible that they’re excellent, but I’m skeptical. You can read my recommendations for writing resources right here on this website:

Do any of you know The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White? When I was in college, everyone had it. I’ve heard it called old-fashioned, and the charge may be true, but it can’t be beat for elegance and concision. A very thin book, but packed. I used to reread the examples for pure pleasure in the way the ideas are expressed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has survived a disaster (you decide what), but modern life has been destroyed. Before, she was into Legos. Every spare minute went into creating Lego structures. After the disaster, she is separated from family and friends (or they’ve all died). Her survival is in her ill-equipped hands. Write her first attempt to teach herself how to stay alive. Keep going if you like.

∙ Your MC has survived a car–or spaceship or winged horse–crash. He’s alone, badly injured, in harsh conditions. Write the scene in which he attempts to save himself. You decide whether or not he succeeds.

∙ Your MC starts a new school and discovers that her old one failed her. She is way behind. Her teachers could speaking ancient Sumerian for all she understands. She is ashamed to ask for help. Write her struggle to catch up on her own.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Revision methodology

On February 13, 2013, Requien wrote, I was wondering if you have any advice on self-editing. This past NaNoWriMo, I cheated a little and finished my previous manuscript. After deleting my midnight-German rants that ended up just being word count boosts, the novel is hovering around 92-94k words. There are several passages that need expansion, and some details must be added in. 

However, I’m not really sure where to start: do I add in the passages and lace it up, or edit the strange, awkward layers first? As an extended note, I have three different perspectives from the third person omniscient- would this be considered acceptable in a writing community, or strange?

First off, congratulations on finishing your NaNoWriMo novel, whichever year it belongs to! This is a big accomplishment. Kudos to you!

Let’s start with the last question. I don’t know of any monolithic writing community that rules on acceptability. Writers worth their salt know that each book is unique; each book demands its own treatment and requires of the writer whatever approach is best for the story.

I’ve said this before on the blog: the primary writing objective is clarity, unless we’re writing experimental fiction. I don’t mean instant clarity. We can blow smoke in the reader’s eyes now and then. We can write an ending that’s open to interpretation. But the reader should finish a book believing that it was coherent, that he understood what he read. (Careful attention to grammar and punctuation will help this along.) If three different perspectives are needed to tell the story clearly or interestingly, then that’s the right way to go.

I’m a little confused, though, about three third-person omniscient perspectives. Omniscient means all-knowing. When we write in third-person omniscient, we can dip into the thoughts of any character. The god of the story is narrating, and I’m not sure how there can be three of them. However, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, maybe… Sounds fascinating.

We can certainly have three non-omniscient third-person perspectives. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings trilogy adopts this approach throughout. By turns we see events unfold through the eyes of Samwise, Frodo, Pippin, Aragorn, even Gandalf, and I’m sure I’ve left out a few. I’m alternating third-person perspectives in Stolen Magic, and I’ve done so before in my Princess Tales.

Requien’s question comes at a good time. I’m more or less close to finishing the second complete first draft of Stolen Magic, and I’m thinking about how to approach revising. But before I talk about me, let me say that people revise differently, and you may find your own method as you go along. Some begin with a plot edit; then maybe a character edit; a dialogue edit; a setting edit; and, finally, a word choice, grammar, and punctuation edit. There’s no right way.

Usually I just start at the beginning and work my way through, fixing everything at once. And then I do it again. And again. But I’m going to go about the process a little differently this time. I have edits from my editor on the middle section, which I haven’t addressed, because I wanted to get to the end first. So I plan to start with her notes.

(If she had objected to anything structural, anything that would have called for a complete overhaul, I would have stopped my forward momentum, and addressed her issues.)

Then, I have notes and line edits from my critique buddy, the terrific middle-grade and young adult writer Karen Romano Young, biding their time in a pile in my office. My second step will be to review her big-picture notes and then address her line edits as I page through the manuscript, making my own changes and those of hers that seem to fit. (I don’t do everything that either my editor or Karen wants, although I take their comments very seriously; most of all, I need to please myself.)

So, Requien and anyone else who’s reached this point, it may be helpful to show your rough first draft to someone you trust, preferably another writer, who will know how ungainly a first draft can be. That person’s comments may help direct your revisions.

But even before that, I’d expand whatever needs expanding and add the required details, so that your reader gets the full story.

If you feel the manuscript is too much of a mess and allowing other eyes to see it will reduce you to a trembling, anxious jellyfish, I’d suggest listing the issues you see as major and keeping the list visible as you revise. For example, Requien’s list might start with “strange, awkward layers” and continue on to other major problem areas.

Then, when you get your manuscript into more acceptable shape, consider letting some trusted other take a look.

One thing I always always always do when I revise is delete. To me, good writing is succinct. As my book goes on a diet, it gets tighter, clearer, and more pleasurable to read. A great resource to help you toward concision is Stunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a short book that packs a potent punch. And when I say “delete” I don’t necessarily mean whole chapters, although sometimes I do cut that much, but more often I’m snipping within sentences, excising a word here, a word there, that doesn’t add anything to meaning or rhythm.

Here are three prompts:

• Take a page of a current story or an old one. Cut fifty words, more or less.

• Take a page of the same story or a different one. Find a spot that you can develop more or in a new direction. Turn your one page into three.

• Your main character acquires a magic revising wand – you decide how. Excited, she applies it to her story, and the result is a masterpiece. As she’s rereading it and marveling, her dad calls her to dinner. She brings the wand with her to show everyone. After she’s shown it, dinner progresses. Her brother says something annoying. Her mother reminds her she has homework due without even asking her if she’s already finished it, which she has. Her dad tells a truly dumb joke. Believing that the wand revises only the written word, and to express her irritation, she waves it at her family. Everything changes. Tell the story. You can take this beyond the family and explore the effects of the wand on the family dog, people at the supermarket, the supermarket itself, the local park – wherever you want her to wave it.

Have fun, and save what you write!