Home » Writing and Editing

Category: Writing and Editing

Five Myths Non-Writers Believe

Five Myths Non-Writers Believe

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer. But you weren’t always a writer. Once upon a time you were a reader and—perhaps—an aspiring writer.

Like me.

I’ve always been a reader. A bookworm, if you like. And like many readers, I also wanted to be a writer. Specifically, a novelist. I won two school writing competitions in high school and even went on a creative writing camp, but the endless essays of high school and university didn’t leave much time for personal reading or writing.

I didn’t know much about the publishing industry.

Okay. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry.

I started reading for pleasure again when I got a job, but not writing: I already spent enough hours a day in front of a computer, writing client reports and our company newsletter. I had one colleague whose wife was writing a novel. I asked how it was progressing: he said she was still in the research phase, which was going to take her a year. I asked a few more times but stopped asking when I got a look that said she wasn’t making much progress (or not making as much as her husband thought she ought to be making).

I had another colleague who announced one day that he’d finished his novel. I asked when it was going to be published. Yes, I really thought it was that easy.

When I started researching the craft of writing and the business of publishing, I soon realised that many of my assumptions were incorrect. In particular, there were five myths I believed about writing:

  • Anyone can write a novel
  • Writing is a good way to earn some extra cash
  • Running spell check is enough editing
  • Getting a novel published is easy
  • Writers write. The publisher does the rest

Are you laughing yet? Or do some of my naïve ideas sound eerily familiar? I’ve since discovered my ideas were misguided. But I’ve also discovered there is an element of truth in some of them.

Anyone can write a novel

This is both wrong and right. Anyone can type 80,000 words and call it a novel. Slapping a cover on it and uploading to Amazon isn’t hard (it can’t be, given the quality of some of the novels on Amazon).

But writing a good novel is hard, and not just ‘anyone’ can do it. It takes patience, perseverance, and practice. And most people don’t make it.

Writing is an easy way to earn some extra cash

If you’re prepared to make money writing scam recipe books (using recipes copied from dodgy websites) or scam self-help books (using advice copied from wacko websites) or other scam books (using information copied from Wikipedia), then yes, writing can be an easy way to earn extra cash. Even better, hire someone on Fiverr to ghostwrite (or ghostcopy) the book for you.

But is that writing? It’s certainly not the writing dream so many people have. In reality, pursuing a career as a writer, especially a novelist, is going to cost you a lot of money before you earn anything from it. And most writers also have a day job to pay the bills.

Running spell check is enough editing

Once the manuscript is written, editing is just a matter of running spell check, followed by a quick read-through to make sure spell check hasn’t missed any your/you’re or their/there/they’re errors. That’s editing.

No, that’s running spell check. Editing goes into a lot more detail, and a good novel will have one gone through several stages of editing before it is published (not to mention being read and red-penned by critique partners and beta readers before it goes to the editor). And then it will be proofread—which is different again.

Getting a novel published is easy

Check out your local bookstore. Check out the publishers of those novels. Getting your novel published by one of those publishers isn’t easy. It’s a long way from easy.

But the advent of vanity publishers and self-publishing make it easy to find a publisher. Any vanity press will take your money, tell you you’ve written the next great American (or Australian or British or Canadian or New Zealand) novel, and for another $10,000 they’ll be able to put your novel in front of influential Hollywood producers (and take a first-class holiday in some swanky resort).

But self-publishing platforms such as Amazon, DrafttoDigital, iBooks, Kobo and Smashwords do provide newbie authors with a way of getting their novels published and printed and on sale. And it’s not difficult. But authors soon find that writing and publishing was the easy part . . .

Writers write. The publisher does the rest

This is the final myth, and is one that continues to drive new authors to traditional publishers. They don’t want to be involved in the publishing or the marketing. They want to write. Period. The problem with this myth is that all authors, no matter how they are published, all authors have to do more than write.

Even traditional publishers expect authors to contribute to their marketing efforts. At the very least, these will include a website (which the author pays for), social media profiles and regular updates (which the author undertakes herself, or pays someone else to manage), and attendance at certain industry events and conferences (which the author pays for). These efforts may or may not sell books.

Self-published authors have sole responsibility for marketing — there is no one else. They can just write, but then it’s likely no one will buy their books.

Myth or Truth?

Yes, there is an element of truth in each of these five myths. But more myth than truth. Oh, well. Back to the writing . . .

Writers, what myths have you heard that you now know aren’t true?

Readers, what do you believe about writers that might not be true?

An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post | Are you Writing Memoir, Fiction or Faction?

AuthorToolBoxBlogHop | Are You Writing Memoir, Fiction, or Faction?

Welcome to the first #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop of 2018!

The monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop is organised by Raimey Gallant, and has over 40 participating blogs. To find more posts, click here to check out the main page, click here to search #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or click here to find us on Pinterest.

Are you writing real-life stories?

I work with a range of authors as a freelance editor. Most are writing fiction, because that’s my specialty (specifically, Christian fiction). But I do have a few clients writing stories based on true life events. Sometimes these books are clearly non-fiction—memoir (I shared my top tips on writing memoir last week). Some are pure fiction. Others are a mixture of both.

How do you decide which is the most appropriate for your story? Memoir or fiction or something in between?

Memoir?

Memoir is the appropriate choice when the author is discussing good experiences (like a relationship that has had a positive effect on her life), and when the author is prepared to tell the truth.The whole truth. Including the ugly parts. Anything less is fiction, not memoir. And good memoir, like good fiction, is shown rather than told.

Soul Friend by Jo-Anne Berthelsen is an excellent example of memoir. It doesn’t tell all the events of jo-Anne’s life as an autobiography would. Instead, Soul Friend follows a theme in a way that changes the way the reader sees the world. In the case of Soul Friend, the memoir follows Jo-Anne’s journey with Joy, her spiritual mentor, which had me envying the relationship.

Or Fiction?

In contrast, Words by Ginny Yttrup is a novel about sexual abuse written by someone who has herself experienced abuse. Yttrup says she doesn’t use her own experiences in Words, but it’s clear she has used the memories and feelings from her own experiences, then adapted those to her fictional writing.

Words is typical of what readers expect in fiction: clear point of view, clear character goals, motivations, and conflicts, a three-act plot, and showing the story rather than telling. There is an excellent build-up of tension throughout the novel, and the writing is outstanding—emotive without being graphic.

Fiction based on real-life situations is the appropriate choice where the author is prepared to weave a story around the main events and themes, rather than feeling obliged to remain true to what actually happened. It may be easier to compartmentalise when writing fiction: these difficult events are happening to your character, not to you.

Choosing to write a story as fiction will mean creating characters rather than adapting real people. It will mean creating a plot that fits the expected three-act structure, rather than relying on what actually happened and when. But fiction still requires the author to go deep into the feelings of the situation—positive and negative. Especially the negative, because good fiction is about conflict, about things going wrong or things that shouldn’t have happened.

Or Something In Between?

Then there is the middle ground: writing a fictional account of a factual story. This is known as a non-fiction novel, or faction. One well-known example is Roots by Alex Haley, which details nine generations of his family’s history.

I’ve read many novels which take this faction approach. Some are writing about the experiences of people and events from long ago, perhaps from their own family history. Some are writing about events that are closer to home, about people they know e.g. friends or parents. And some are writing their own story in novel form.

I’ve read (and edited) non-fiction novels, both those based on the author’s own experiences, and those based on their family history. Some were written as pure fiction, others were written as faction. The stories which worked best had the following features:

The author was sufficiently distanced by time to be able to write about the people and events without personal bias.

This may be because the author is writing about other people (e.g. parents or other relations, or complete strangers) rather than about himself or herself. Authors who are writing about themselves often don’t pay enough attention to the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) of their lead characters—possibly because they didn’t have a personal goal at the time. This lack of GMC makes for a weak novel.

The author was prepared to be honest about the faults of the characters.

No one is perfect in real life, and no one likes reading about perfect fictional characters. This means the author needs to ensure the main characters has faults … even when that main character is based on the author. And they have to be real faults, not the kind we dredge up for job interviews (“People say my biggest fault is that I work too hard”).

The main character’s actions felt realistic.

The problem with creating an almost-perfect main character is that personal stories (fiction or faction) are almost always stories where something went wrong or where something bad happened. That’s good, because good fiction is about conflict, about things going wrong. Sometimes this leads to characters making decisions that are out of character … because that’s how it happened in real life. It’s not enough for that thing to have happened in real life. It also has to make sense in the context of the character the author has created (even when that character is based on the author or someone s/he knows).

The author was prepared to change what actually happened.

In fiction, the needs of the story are paramount. If cutting a scene, changing the timeline, or combining characters makes it a better story, the change is made. Even if that wasn’t how it happened in real life (because fiction has to feel realistic for the reader).

The author kept to one story.

I read one World War II novel that had a good first half, but then turned strange in the second half. When I read the author’s note, I found the first half had been based on the real-life events of one person, and the second half based on another. That’s why the second half seemed as though the heroine was acting out of character: because she was literally a different person.

But this can happen even if the author sticks to one character. Good fiction is like memoir: it focuses on one key theme or story question. A scene that doesn’t move the character closer to their goal has no place in the novel. Even if it’s the time you (aka your character) met the Queen. Stick to the story.

What is Right for Your Story?

So what is right for your story? Memoir, fiction, or faction? Only you can answer that question, but I hope these tips will help you decide.

Are you writing a real-life story? Is it memoir, fiction, or faction?

Writing Memoir

Writing Craft: Tips and Resources for Writing Memoir

I specialise in editing fiction, but I’ve recently had a few enquiries about memoir. I thought I’d share a few tips and resources on memoir today.

What is a Memoir?

Memoir is a non-fiction book about you, the author. It’s not your full life story—that would be an autobiography. And it’s not about someone else—that would be a biography.

Rather than telling your full life story, memoir has a single theme. For example, Soul Friend by JoAnne Berthlesen focused on JoAnne’s relationship with her spiritual mentor. Eat Pray Love by Elizbeth Gilbert focused on her one-year journey around the world following her divorce.

The key with memoir is to pick that narrow focus, and stick to it.

Who are you Writing For?

How you write a memoir depends largely on who you are writing for. If you’re writing purely for your family, then you can write pretty much what you want and how you want. It’s your book, so you can write it for yourself and your family.

But if you want to publish your memoir for a wider audience, you’ll need to write it for your readers more than for yourself. This means identifying and understanding your target reader, and writing a memoir that will appeal to those readers.

How do you Write a Memoir?

Memoir is part of a genre known as narrative non-fiction. That means the writing follows the same kind of narrative structure and writing style as a novel. Good memoir:

  • Has a clear theme.
  • Follows a clear structure.
  • Includes conflict.
  • Is told from a single point of view.
  • Shows rather than tells the story.
  • Focuses on the emotion.
  • Starts in media res—in the middle of the thing.
  • Avoids unnecessary backstory.
  • Leaves out events and relationships that aren’t core to the main theme.

A memoir must also strive for truth and accuracy.

Memoir is not the place for mistruths or outright lies to make ourselves look better. It’s human nature to want to present ourselves in the best possible light, but our readers expect honesty. Even when it hurts.

And it can hurt. Many people who have been through difficult experiences write memoir because they have a desire to help others going through similar experiences. But you have to be in a healthy emotional state to write about difficult experiences such as abuse, cancer, depression, infertiity, or rape.

These things must be discussed in detail, with an emphasis on the feelings.

Memoir isn’t the place to gloss over the hard parts. Readers need and expect the truths of the pitfalls and failures as well as the successes. A memoir writer will need to go deep into their negative emotions. The more traumatic the events being discussed, the more difficult this will be. If this is you, you’ll need a strong support network to talk and pray you through the hard parts so you can be truthful and accurate for your future reader without taking yourself back to the dark place. To do anything less will be cheating your reader.

On the other hand, full truth and accuracy might be impossible. For example, you might recount a conversation between you and a friend or family member as you remember it. But the other person might remember it differently. Does that mean your account is wrong, or inaccurate? No, but it does mean you might face future problems with that person if they can’t see your point of view.

Who publishes memoir?

The sad truth is that most trade publishers aren’t interested in memoir unless they can see a lot of commercial potential. Unfortunately, this means trade publishers are only interested in memoirs written by people who are already household names through entertainment, political, sporting or workplace achievements (e.g. Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, or Tiger Woods), or through the development of an online platform (e.g. Ann Voskamp).

Sure, a vanity press will be more than happy to publish your memoir, but that’s because they see the commercial potential … the potential of getting you, the author, to pay them.

Check out my list of Christian fiction publishers—many of them also publish non-fiction.

Where Can I Find More Information?

Christian literary agent Rachelle Gardener has a list of recommended books for people looking to write memoir.

Reedsy have published an in-depth post: How to Write a Memoir: Top Tips from Bestselling Ghostwriters

Award-winning Australian author Cecily Thew Patterson has a free online course on writing memoir available from her website, The Red Lounge for Writers.

Cecily recommends memoir writers start by reading and working through the exercises in Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I agree. While Story Genius was written for novelists, the principles hold true for memoir as well.

Do you have any recommended resources for memoir writers? Or any questions? Let me know in the comments.
Six-Stage Structure

Plot and Structure: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure since attending his all-day session at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference in August 2016. I did write a summary post (Identity, Essence, and God), but I didn’t cover the detail of his approach to writing novels and screenplays.

I couldn’t. Because it can’t be boiled down to a 600-word blog post. But over the last year I have come across some free and paid resources where Michael Hauge explains his approach to plot. So I’m going to share those instead of trying to cover everything myself.

Michael Hauge is best known as a screenwriting consultant, and his books do tend to focus on screenplays. But (as he argues), the essential elements of fiction are the same, whether the medium is novel or film or TV. And many writers would like to see their novels adapted into a film—it seems to me that we give ourselves the best chance of making that possible if we start by writing a novel that is structured like a film.

Yes, structure is the key.

A lot of writing instructors focus entirely on plot or structure. It’s not that they ignore character. It’s more that they place structure first. Plot then falls out of that, then character. But if you’ve tried to write a book like that, you’ve probably found it more difficult than it sounds. I think the reason is that it’s easy to explain structure: it’s a formula (and that’s not a bad thing). It’s engineering, and there is a right way to build a story.

Character is harder. Everyone is unique, and our characters also have to be unique. But trying to develop unique characters can’t be reduced to a formula. And that’s where Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Structure can help. (Click here to download a copy.)

Hauge’s methodology complements the work of many other leading writing teachers, e.g.

Here are a few key lessons from Michael Hauge:

  • Your role as a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. That’s it.
  • The way you elicit emotion is by introducing conflict. Internal and external conflict is what engages your reader (or viewer) and gets them to care.
  • You can manipulate conflict using techniques such as a ticking close, or superior knowledge.
  • All stories are about a character who wants something, but something stands in their way. This must be a visible goal.
  • All characters have an emotional wound they are trying to overcome, and the best way to reveal the wound is through dialogue i.e. show, don’t tell.
  • Avoid multiple-hero stories.

For more information:

Film Courage Interview

Film Courage interviewed Michael in January 2017, and the 90-minute recording is available on YouTube. It’s their most-viewed interview of 2017, and I can see why.

Udemy Course

The interview references some work Michael Hauge did with Chris Vogler, integrating Hauge’s Story Structure with Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. This is available via Udemy. The full course includes over six hours of video. The full price is $175, but Udemy hold regular sales (I got it for $10). I suggest signing up for Udemy’s newsletter so you get notified when they hold a sale.

Writing Screenplays that Sell

Michael Hauge has several books. I’ve read Writing Screenplays That Sell, which I recommend. Hauge goes into a lot of detail about character development, theme, and structure, then moves into how to write and format a screenplay. This section is of less use to novelists but is still worth reading for the occasional relevant nugget. But the book is worth the price for the information in the first section.

You can read the introduction below:

Writing Backstory

Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story: #WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice?

There are many “rules” to writing good fiction. One of them is to keep backstory to the back of the story, to not use any backstory in the first fifty pages.

Is this a good writing tip, or more bad writing advice?

Don’t we need to introduce our characters to the reader at the beginning of the story? Don’t we need to give enough of their personal character history to enable the reader to understand what’s going on?

As with many pieces of writing advice, the answer is yes. And no. Or no, and yes, depending on which way you prefer to look at the issue.

What is Backstory?

Backstory is anything that happens before our story begins. The reader doesn’t need to know the character’s entire life history … although the author does. Yes, the reader needs to know some of the character’s personal history. The trick with writing great fiction is understanding what the reader needs to know, and when.

One of the first writing craft books I read was How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard MIttlemark. One of the quotes I copied was this:

Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Do not write hundreds of pages explaining… why the characters are living the way they are when the story begins, or what past events made the characters into people who would have that story.

I thought this was ridiculous. Surely no author would be so … so … stupid? So naive?

But by some strange quirk of fate, the very next novel I read had exactly this problem. I’m not going to embarrass the author by naming them, or telling you the title, or even the genre. I don’t remember much about the story. What I do remember is that whenever a new character was introduced, the author took the opportunity to share that character’s life story.

And the story of how their parents met and married.

And sometimes even the story of how their grandparents met and married, and how many children they had, and when, and where, and why, and …

And none of this information had any relevance to the story at hand. It was well written. It was interesting. But it was irrelevant to the present story (which is probably why I’ve forgotten the basics of the actual story).

Yes, some authors have a problem with backstory.

That’s not to say you can’t use backstory at the beginning of a novel.

You can introduce some backstory. In fact, you have to use introduce some backstory to give the reader an understanding of your main character’s goals and motivations, which influence their central internal and external conflicts. You may need to use backstory to give your reader a reason to care about your character.

But flip-flopping between the past and the present at the beginning of the story can leave you with a novel that confuses readers. Instead, ensure your opening chapter clarifies:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What does the main character want?
  • Why does s/he want that?
  • When is this story set?
  • Where is this story set?

And answer these questions in the present timeline of the story.

Lay out actions in sequential order. Don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader .
– Janalyn Voigt, via WordServeWaterCooler.com

In Media Res

The use of backstory often relates to a common writing issue: new writers often start their story in the wrong place. Novels should start in media res—in media res—in the middle of the thing.

Your novel itself begins “in the middle of the thing”—the “thing” being the story. What starts on page one is the second half of the story, where the plot kicks in.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 2

But characters don’t emerge fully formed on the page. They have personal histories, just like real people. They have likes and dislikes, just like real people. Some of that is directly relevant to the novel’s plot, and some is not. But without the backstory, there is no present story.

Your protagonist doesn’t start from “neutral”. He starts from a very particular place, with very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 3

Your character has a backstory.

In fact, all your characters have their own backstory, and that backstory is what influences their lives in the present (or in whatever “present” your novel is set, whether that’s the past, the present, or the future).

As a writer, you need to know this backstory. You need to know what has formed your protagonist and antagonist into the characters you are writing. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends you do write three story-specific backstory scenes. But these aren’t included in the final manuscript. The information in the scenes might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

Margie Lawson uses the illustration of a pane of glass. Imagine writing all your backstory on a large pane of glass, them dropping the glass so it smashes into slivers. Then pick up those slivers, one at a time, and insert them into your story.

A sliver at a time. Not the entire window. At the time when it best serves the story to reveal that information.

An Example of Good Backstory

I’ve recently read A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden. Much of the first chapter is backstory, but it’s written well and integrated into the present scene (well, the novel’s present. It’s historical fiction). Here’s an example:

They lived on the fourth floor of a brownstone walk-up that had once been a prestigious building, but had fallen on hard times in recent decades. Much like her own family.

Just two sentences, but a lot of backstory. What do we learn?

  • The setting—where the point of view character lives (a brownstone walk-up in Greenwich Village, New York).
  • A brief description that hints rather than tells—once prestigious hints the building is in a state of disrepair without telling us about the peeling paint or the chipped bricks.
  • A sliver of backstory—her own family has fallen on hard times.
  • A hint at timing—the problem goes back decades.

Clever. Very clever.

It’s also shown in the voice of the character, not the voice of the author.

This paragraph illustrates that we can—and even should—use backstory in the beginning of the story. But we need to sliver it in, not dump it. The author could then have gone on to describe exactly how the family fell on hard times—and she does. But not here, because it’s not relevant to the story at this point.

So here are four tips for writing backstory:

  • Know the backstory of your main characters.
  • Know how their backstory contributes to the present story.
  • Include only what is relevant to the story.
  • Include backstory as slivers.

What tips or questions do you have about backstory?

What is Your Editing Process?

What Is Your Editing Process? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

This post is part of the monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant, with over 40 blogs participating. To find more posts, click here to check out the main page, search #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or click here to find us on Pinterest.

I’ve recently read Write Like a Boss! by Honoree Corder and Ben Hale. It’s an excellent short book, and I recommend it. If you write fiction, it’s worth the purchase price simply for Chapter Four, where Ben Hale details his personal revision and editing process.

Ben says:

My draft process is thirteen drafts. But it didn’t start our that way. My first book went through twenty-four drafts, and still has errors.

Wow. Just wow.

I have two initial comments about Ben’s editing process:

  1. His process is actually fourteen steps: he doesn’t count his initial detailed outline as a draft. Ben is obviously a plotter, not a pantser. I suspect a pantser would need more drafts.
  2. Ben is an experienced fiction writer. A less experienced writer, who doesn’t know some of the “rules” of fiction, will need more drafts. For example, if you write in third person but don’t know what headhopping is, you’ll probably need one full pass through your manuscript to identify headhopping, and one full draft to fix your point of view. Maybe two.

As a freelance editor, I found it interesting to see where Ben’s copyeditor fit in the process. His copyeditor sees the fifth draft of the book—he goes though the full book another eight times before he publishes, which shows there is more to editing than many authors realize.

So here is an outline of Ben’s editing process with my comments (if you want Ben’s comments, buy the book!).

Draft 0: Outline

Ben write in series, so his outline includes a series outline, outlines for the individual books, and even the chapters. Outlining means he will already know the genre, plot, story arc, characters, theme and the aims for each scene before he starts writing. If you don’t outline, this may mean four to six additional drafts to make sure you’ve nailed these essentials.

A critique partner may help brainstorm some of these plot and character issues at the outline stage.

Draft 1: Finish

The aim here is to get a completed manuscript to edit. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, this is probably what you’re aiming for.

Draft 2: Content

Fill in holes and add detail. I suspect this is where a lot of authors think their work ends. Now they send it to an editor and that’s it, right? Nope.

Draft 3: Alpha Reader

Ben’s alpha readers ignore grammar and typos and focus on the big picture issues: what’s working in terms of the big issues of plot, character, story, and theme, what isn’t working, and what’s missing.

Some authors may work with a critique partner who fills this role. Others may hire an editor to undertake a developmental edit or manuscript assessment.

Draft 4: Character Building

Use comments from the alpha reader to fill out the characters and make them real.

A pantser may need to add another draft in here around plot: filling in the plot holes, and deleting extraneous scenes. After all, you don’t want to pay an editor to edit 3,000 words that don’t drive the plot forward.

Draft 5: Editor

Always submit the best possible draft to your editor. It will help keep the cost down if you’ve already removed the hundreds of adverbs, that’s, very’s, and other overused words, and fixed all the typos you can find. It also means your editor can focus on the things you can’t fix.

Draft 6: Post Editor Partial

Accept or reject minor changes (e.g. spelling and grammar), and undertake sentence-level improvements e.g. adding rhetorical devices, adding fresh descriptions and body language (no “he nodded” or “she shrugged”). If you have no idea what I mean, head on over to Lawson Writer’s Academy and sign up for Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More.

Draft 7: Post Editor Full

Now the story is free from Track Changes, address any major story issues (like that scene you should have cut and didn’t).

Draft 8: Word Draft

Polishing: checking character names are spelled correctly and consistently, and haven’t been used in other books. Run spell check. Fix the typos and mistakes you introduced in Drafts 6 and 7. Review your editorial letter and make sure you haven’t added back any of the adverbs the editor “suggested” you cut. (Because it wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order.)

You might ask why the editor didn’t catch some of these things. They may have, but they might miss tiny things while they fix big things. Your editor might not know that you called the character Jaime in the last book, but this book calls him Jayme.

It’s also a numbers game. It’s not unusual for me to suggest 10,000 changes in a 100,000 word novel. Even if I’m 99.9% accurate, I’ll still miss 100 changes. And the author might add a few hundred more as they revise and edit. This is why trade published novels go through at least three rounds of editing … and still aren’t perfect.

Draft 9: Beta Readers

Ben suggests at least five beta readers, and they have to be honest. You need your beta readers to find what’s wrong, not gush over how clever you are that you’ve written a whole book all by yourself. Please. You’re not five. Adult up and seek honest critical feedback. (But you don’t have to accept mean feedback. People can be critical without being mean).

How to pick beta readers is probably a whole separate blog post. Like this one from #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop participant JR Creaden: 5 Things To Do Before You Beta Your Book.

Draft 10: Post Beta Reader

Add changes suggested by beta readers.

Draft 11: Vocal Drafts

Reading out loud is a great way of catching sentences that don’t quite make sense, or don’t sound right (especially in dialogue). I’ll often read awkward sentences out loud when I’m editing for other people as a way of finding and fixing a problem.

Draft 12: Final Beta Reader

One final read-through to catch last-minute typos. I think it’s best if this person hasn’t read the full story before (although they may have add early input at Draft 0 or 1). The reason for this suggestion is that we often see the words we think are on the page, not the words which are actually there. For this draft, you want someone who is going to read the words on the page, not fill in the blanks because they’ve already read the story almost as many times as you have.

Draft 13: Final and Format

Fix final typos, format, and add front and back matter (make sure you double check the spelling of any people you thank. It kind of takes away from the buzz of being mentioned if the author spells your name wrong. True story).

This draft process is not for everyone. In fact, it probably only works for me. But hopefully it helps you get a start on your own if you don’t already have one.

This process (or something like it) will be useful for me as a writer. It’s also going to be useful for me as a freelance editor, as it shows clients where Editor-Me falls in the writing and revision process.

As I said, I do recommend Write Like a Boss! It has heaps of great tips for both fiction and non-fiction writers.

Do you have an editing process? What does it look like?

This is the final #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post for 2017. We figure everyone will be busy with NaNoWriMo in November, and Christmas in December. We’ll be back in January 2018. Meanwhile, I’ll still post every Wednesday (writing or marketing) and Saturday (Best of the Blogs). Well, except for Christmas and New Year.

Meanwhile, check out more #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop posts:

Click here to check out the main page.

#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop is on Twitter.

Click here to find us on Pinterest.

Understanding the Use of Chekhov’s Gun in Fiction

I’ve mentioned Chekhov’s Gun in two of my recent posts, Kill Your Darlings and Show, Don’t Tell. There are variations of the rule floating around the interwebz, but here is the version I first read:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

I believe this rule basically centres about meeting reader expectations.

Each genre has its’ own conventions, and as authors we need to abide by those conventions, or twist them in an acceptable manner.

For example, a romance novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a HEA, or Happy Ever After, although a HFN aka Happy For Now is also acceptable). And a romance novel must follow the stories of the hero and heroine. Some authors will use an Other Woman or Other Man trope (think of Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home, Alabama). But savvy readers identify the true hero and heroine early on—they are the two viewpoint characters.

Mystery novels have their own set of conventions, illustrated to great effect in Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering. The detective can not be the murderer. The murderer must be one of the characters. All the characters (including the murderer and the victim) are introduced early in the novel—this gives the novel a double layer of tension as first we wonder who is going to die (and how), then we have the tension of watching the character try and solve the crime.

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is an example of the literary technique of foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing

Michael Hague defines foreshadowing as:

Giving greater credibility to a character’s actions and abilities by laying the groundwork for them earlier.

The purpose is often to make some later action seem believable, to allow us to avoid deus ex machina endings. For example, you might not be convinced by a novel ending with a shoot-em-up scene in which the petite heroine picks up a shotgun and shoots the heart out of the bad guy from 100 feet.

But you’d believe it if you’d if the hero had phoned her while she was at the shooting range, or if the description of her house included a dusty shelf of shooting trophies, or if the heroine had once tried out for the Olympic shooting team.

Unfortunately, foreshadowing has a poor cousin, telegraphing.

Telelgraphing

Telegraphing is foreshadowing taken too far. With good foreshadowing, the reader reads and absorbs the information, but the importance of the information is only apparent later in the book—perhaps at the climax. With telegraphing, it’s less subtle, as though the writer is shouting, “Pay attention! This is important!”

Rachelle Gardener says:

Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense or the impact of the event.

It’s essentially sending the reader a signal—a telegraph—about what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s in the form of an author intrusion: little did they know, that telephone call would change everything.

Sometimes it’s telling. An example would be characters discussing their plan to rescue their colleagues from the evildoers. If the rescue goes according to plan, it’s telegraphing—you only need to say it once, and it would almost always be better to show the actual rescue than tell the plan.

Sometimes it’s pretending to be a red herring—having the characters discuss the rescue plan because the rescue isn’t going to go according to plan. Unfortunately, that’s a device that’s been used too often, and the reader is likely to work out, consciously or subconsciously, that the reason they are being told the rescue plan is because something is going to go wrong. That’s telegraphing.

Foreshadowing is good. Telegraphing is not.

Exceptions to the Rule

As with many “rules” of writing (and life), there are exceptions. Two accepted exceptions to the principle of Chekhov’s gun are the red herring, and the MacGuffin.

Red Herring

A red herring is a staple of the mystery plot—something which distracts attention from the real issue. Agatha Christie novels are full of red herrings (no doubt why I can never figure out whodunit). A good red herring is plausible, and leads the reader towards a convincing yet wrong conclusion.

I think the reason a red herring works as a literary device is that the mystery reader subconsciously expects the author to include red herrings.

We see the gun on the mantelpiece. We see a character killed by a gunshot. We expect the character was shot with the gun on the mantelpiece, and we wonder who could have stolen the gun, killed someone, and returned the gun in the time allowed.

We wonder … but we’re not surprised if it turns out that there were two guns.

MacGuffin

Merriam-Webster’s define a MacGuffin as:

an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance

The term dates from 1939, and was first used by Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin is something the characters care a lot about, but which the reader doesn’t care about. Examples include the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, the plans for the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope, and the Holy Grail in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and probably every other movie mentioning the Holy Grail).

In each case, the MacGuffin is purely a device to motivate the characters and drive the plot forward. Used well, it’s a great device. But be careful not to introduce something you think is a MacGuffin, but which the reader sees as Chekhov’s gun. The key to a good MacGuffin is that the promise is fulfilled. The One Ring is destroyed. The plans highlight the weakness in the Death Star. Indiana Jones does find the Holy Grail.

Basically, that’s what Chekhov’s gun comes down to: fulfilling the promise to the reader. And that’s the key to all great fiction.

Can you think of any excellent examples of Chekhov’s gun in practice?

Show, Don't Tell How to Identify Telling

Show, Don’t Tell: How to Identify Telling

Last week I discussed one of the major writing rules, Show, Don’t Tell, where I looked at what telling is, why it’s bad … and when you need to use it. But how do you identify telling in your manuscript?

Today I’m going to share my top tips for identifying and removing telling , based on the most common telling errors I see in the manuscripts I assess and edit. They are:

  • Telling through Dialogue
  • Telling through Internal Monologue
  • Telling Tags
  • Telling the Emotion

Telling through Dialogue

Dialogue is usually considered showing, because it’s a form of action. But dialogue can be telling.

Characters will sometimes tell each other things they already know, as a way of informing readers of something the author thinks they need to know. This could be two police officers discussing the appropriate procedures for collecting evidence, or two medical professionals discussing the best way to draw blood, or how to calculate the correct dose of medicine. This may look like showing, because it’s dialogue, but it’s not. It’s telling, because there is no plot or character reason for those characters to have that conversation.

The only reason for the conversation is to get information across to the reader. That’s not good writing.

The best (worst?) example of this is Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury. In it, the married couples got for long walks and remind each other how they met (which might be acceptable if there had been a mass outbreak of amnesia). If you’ve never read one of the 20+ Baxter Family novels, Coming Home provides lots of useful catch-up on a large cast of characters. But if you have read the novels, it’s unnecessary telling.

We all know someone who retells the same stories over and over at family parties … and we avoid that person. Unless your character is that person, or has some kind of mental health problem, avoid having them repeat the same information over and over. It doesn’t ring as true to the reader.

Ask yourself: would real-life people have this conversation?

If a conversation is the only way you can get vital facts or backstory across to the reader, consider introducing a third character who reasonably wouldn’t know the information, but needs to know. If educating that character is the focus of the scene, it is more likely to be showing than telling.

Telling Through Internal Monologue

If you’re writing in deep point of view (and I hope you are), then all the narrative should be filtered through the viewpoint character. We should see what she sees, hear what she hears, touch what she touches, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes … and know what she thinks. It’s great to read a novel when an author really gets inside a character’s head and the reader effectively becomes that character.

It’s less great when the ongoing action of the story is disrupted by long passages of internal monologue.

This is usually the character reacting to what has been said or done. The internal monologue might be fascinating, but if a line of dialogue shows up in the middle of a long passage of internal monologue and I, the reader, have to turn back three pages to work out what the dialogue is responding to … then the internal monologue has switched from showing us the viewpoint character’s state of mind to telling us her every thought.

Ask yourself: has your internal monologue turned into telling?

If you’re writing an action scene, sprinkle the internal monologue throughout the scene rather than dumping it all at once. A word here, a sentence there, perhaps even a paragraph while she waits for the kettle to boil … but no more than a paragraph. Otherwise you run the risk of turning your internal monologue into telling.

Telling Tags

One common way authors tell where they should be showing is through dialogue, and dialogue tags. Newbie authors often add adverbs to their dialogue tags which explain the dialogue—in effect, telling what the dialogue should be showing:

“Attention!” the sergeant barked.

Dogs bark. Not people. People shout. (The exception might be if your sergeant is actually a weredog or werewolf. They might bark.)

“I don’t want to go to school,” Johnny grumbled.

We’ve all heard (and perhaps even said) those words. We all know that tone. The dialogue shows us Johnny is unhappy. There’s no need to use the dialogue to tell us as well. It’s unnecessary repetition. Browne and King say:

If your dialogue doesn’t need the props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even when it isn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Beth said apologetically.

Yes, I’ve seen that in a manuscript. As you can probably tell, the adverb is unnecessary (and telling) because the reader has already figured Beth is sorry from the dialogue (a form of showing). Browne and King say:

Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.

Ask yourself: are you explaining your dialogue with telling tags or adverbs?

Telling the Emotion

Authors often tell the emotion. It’s easy to spot:

  • Beth felt tired.
  • Beth was sorry.
  • Beth wanted to run away and hide.

Felt, was, were, wanted, had, thought, wondered, knew, looked, gazed, heard … these are all telling words. They are telling us what the character is thinking or doing, rather than showing us.

Instead of telling, show the action or show the emotion. How do we show?

  • Show Beth’s facial expression. Does she look as though she’s about to cry, or about to punch someone? What does that look like?
  • Show Beth’s body language. If Beth is truly sorry, she’s likely to be slumped over with her head down. If she’s defiant, she’s likely to be standing tall, perhaps with her arms crossed.
  • Describe Beth’s voice—the tone, pitch, volume, or rate at which she speaks.
  • Use an action beat instead of a dialogue tag, to show what Beth is doing.

Ask yourself: are you using telling words?

I hope this gives you some practical tips on how to show, not tell. For more detailed advice, I recommend:

What tips do you have on showing, not telling?

Show, Don't Tell

Show, Don’t Tell (#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop)

Show, Don’t Tell is part of the September #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Click here to find other blogs participating in the Hop and read some great writing advice! Or follow the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or visit our Pinterest board.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve discussed two oft-quoted pieces of writing advice (or bad writing advice, depending on who you ask):

I’ve covered what each phrase means, and how you can apply it to editing your manuscript. Today I’m going to cover another common writing tip: Show, Don’t Tell, which is one of the major rules of modern fiction (whether contemporary or historical, genre or literary).

But what does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Mean?

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel—think Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, or Charles Dickens. They told their stories as the narrator, able to see into the minds of all the characters at once.

But telling is now considered outdated by publishers, and readers. Modern readers don’t need pages describing a jungle, a panther, and how a panther moves through the jungle. We’ve seen that on the Discovery Channel.

Modern fiction writing relies on showing the story through a series of scenes. We need to show our reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene. We need to allow readers to watch and experience the story for themselves.

This isn’t new. Sol Stein said this in 1999:

A writer who wants to be read by contemporary audiences … will find it useful to study through example the differences between narrative summary and immediate scene. Keep in mind that narrative summary is telling and immediate scene is showing.

So instead of telling the reader she was frightened at the noise in the dark basement, let us hear the noise and show us her reactions—her conscious actions, her unconscious visceral reactions, and her internal monologue:

There was a thump in the basement, a pause, then scrapes and scratches as though something—or someone—was moving furniture across the wooden floor. Then steps. Footsteps. Climbing the stairs. She froze in place as her heart beat in time to the heavy footsteps, da-dum, da-dum, he-is com-ing. Where could she hide?

As Renni Browne and Dave King say:

You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.

We need to show the action (and reaction) that relates to the main plot and subplots. We need to show the action and reaction that impacts on the character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts—their character arc.

But we don’t need to show everything.

I’ve yet to read a novel where a character visits the bathroom (to use the American euphemism). This is a good thing. We know the characters must need to visit the bathroom on occasion. But it’s detail we rarely need.

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.

We can tell the transitions between scenes. If scene A takes place at home, and scene B takes place in the office, we don’t need to show every detail of how our character gets from A to B—unless it’s directly relevant to the plot, or to the character’s personal arc.

This comes back to the principle of Chekov’s gun, which I touched on last week:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

Readers know and understand this principle, even if they can’t articulate it:

  • We know that if a novel shows character scrabbling for her car keys in the dark of the parking garage, there will be someone waiting behind her car (or in the car).
  • We know that if the novel shows character using her car key to open the car remotely, there will be a bomb in the car.
  • We know that if the character is shown squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush and cleaning her teeth, that there’s either something nasty in the tube of toothpaste, or someone has cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush.

There has to be a reason for any detail. If there is no reason to show the detail, that’s when you tell. We don’t want to disappoint our readers by leading them to believe something is important when it isn’t.

Next week I’m going to share three ways authors tell when they should be showing, and how to fix those “tells”.

What questions do you have about Show, Don’t Tell?

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings is another of those oft-quoted pieces of writing advice. It’s sometimes quoted as murder your darlings, but never fear. No actual killing or murdering is required.

No, the saying relates to the revision and editing process. It refers to the need for us to revise or delete (kill) any word, any sentence, any paragraph, any scene that doesn’t add to the point of our writing.

What Are Your Darlings?

These are called darlings because they are often the part we like best as the writer—the interesting word, the original turn of phrase, the scene that makes us laugh (or cry) and confirms we can actually do this thing. We can write. We are writers.

This could be because our darling doesn’t move the plot forward, or because it reveals too much information too soon. It could be because it doesn’t aid in characterisation, or because it is inconsistent with the character as he or she has been established. Or it could be because it takes readers off on an unnecessary tangent, like the time …

Sometimes these are our favourite parts, hence killing our darlings.

But killing your darlings isn’t a bad thing. Done properly, it makes your story better.

Why Do Your Darlings Have to Die?

In non-fiction, you have to kill your darlings because you need to keep your readers on track. You are making a point, and every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to reinforce your argument. Yes, you can tell stories in non-fiction. But they must relate to your central point. For example, I could add in a couple of paragraphs over the origin of the phrase, Kill Your Darlings, with an in-depth examination of who reportedly said it first. That might be interesting, but it doesn’t add to the central point of this post.

Fiction is similar—we need to keep ourselves and our readers on track. There is an assumption in fiction that everything is important. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

(I could now go down any number of rabbit holes expanding on whether it’s a gun, a riffle, a pistol or a sidearm, but again … kill those darlings.)

In fiction, each scene needs to move your plot forward and deepen characterisation. Any scene that doesn’t needs to be strengthened, or cut. Even though you spent hours writing it. Kill those darlings. Take the information the reader needs and sliver it into the plot. Ignore the rest, or turn it into a short story or something else that can be downloaded from your website as a gift to email subscribers.

How to Find and Kill Your Darlings

I’ve found killing my darlings isn’t the hard part. The hard part is identifying them in the first place. Some are easy to find and easy to kill. Others are much harder. Three darlings that need a swift death are:

  • Weasel words
  • Wasted words
  • Writerly words

Weasel Words

Most authors have weasel words—words like just, quite, really, that, or very—which don’t add to the writing. Other overused words include smile and shrug and nod. It’s not that they are bad words. It’s that they are overused to the point they become boring and predictable. And who wants their writing to be boring and predictable?

Kill those darlings.

Wasted Words

Some words are wasted words—words that don’t add anything to the story or deepen characterisation. At best, these are just words. At worst, they are sentences or paragraphs or scenes. Sometimes these wasted words are examples of repetition, where we’ve said the same thing more than once. Where two or three different images are used to give the same effect. Where we’ve repeated ourselves.

Like in that paragraph.

It’s not fun to read. So use the strongest image, and delete the others. Sol Stein has a formula: 1+1= ½ . It means the more different images you use to show something, the weaker the overall writing.

Here’s an example, taken from Stein on Writing:

He had time to think, time to become an old man in aspic, in sculptured soap, quaint and white.

I like the image of an old man in aspic. It’s original, and it gives the impression of someone who is so old they are almost preserved. But the image of soap detracts from the first image. The author also explains the soap image: quaint and white. Stein points out that we usually think of soap as white unless a colour is stated, so that’s redundant. And since when was soap ‘quaint’?

Kill those darlings.

Writerly Words

Fictional darlings can include words or phrases that you like, but that don’t add to the story. Sometimes they are what Margie Lawson calls writerly words. Words that don’t sound natural for your character or story. Words that sound like a writer wrote them. These are often the hardest darlings to kill, because they are the words we struggled to find. But just because we searched three thesauruses (thesauri?) to find the right word doesn’t mean it’s the right word for our character.

Kill those darlings.

But How Do I Find Them?

The best way to find your darlings is to put your manuscript aside for as long as possible so that when you read it again, you read it with fresh eyes. This means you’re better able to look at it as a reader, and more likely to pick up mistakes … and darlings. The longer the manuscript, the longer the time needed between writing and editing.

You may have darlings that serve a purpose—moving the plot forward, deepening characterisation, or both. Great. They can live. But cut what you can. Everything you cut is something your editor doesn’t have to cut for you, which means your editing fees will be lower.

Kill those darlings. Your editor with thank you.