Tag Archives: editing

I Feel Attacked

Saw this a while back, after having some conversations with a writer friend from my local group. “Dave,” he said, “one thing I noticed was consistency in spelling. Which things are capitalized and which are not. That sort of thing.”

Guess what’s #1 on Ellen Brock’s list?


Seriously, though, if you’re self-publishing or working on a manuscript to submit to traditional publishing, here are a lot of pitfalls to avoid.

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

It seems inevitable. You work on something for days, weeks, even months. You reach the point where you’re satisfied that this is a good, finished product. You click “Publish” or “Submit” or some equivalent…

…and immediately you notice mistakes. 


“Oh no… how did I miss that?!”
I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year and completed a manuscript of a novel inspired by current events. Then I deployed to the Mid-East for almost four months, with grand intentions of re-reading and revising the draft (as well as finishing my fantasy novel, and starting a futuristic military novel). 

You know what they say about the best laid plans, and this was no exception.

In late May or early June I got the email from the nanowrimo account warning me that I would lose my reward of two free hard copies from CreateSpace if I didn’t use them by the end of June. I refocused my attention on the manuscript and got it ready for public release. I sent the materials into CreateSpace and started working on reformatting the document for the Kindle edition. 

Then I found the issues I wish I noticed sooner: two supporting characters whose plot threads could have been expanded and better resolved. Later feedback revealed an erroneous technical detail about hospital equipment that a little more research might have resolved. And while I got good in-person reviews from a couple first readers, I also learned they had a hard time connecting to the main characters–feeling what the characters felt, sensing their reactions to the various crises in the plot. 

So while I chalk this up as a win, I also have to recognize where I could have done better. 

1. Critique is essential. Bad on me for skipping it, since I wrote a book about this. Other readers see the weaknesses and mistakes I cannot. If I wasn’t going to pay the money for a professional editor, I should have taken the time to solicit some alpha readers’ input. 

2. There are five senses. It’s basic advice but a great reminder. A lot of the description in the novel provided sufficient detail for sight and somewhat for sound. But there are missed moments where taste, touch, and smell could have shined.

3. Plot like a roller coaster. Let the drama rise and fall to create pauses and build tension between rushes of excitement. Perhaps in the interest of trying to create good hooks, my characters go through a never-ending rush of drama, from one crisis to the next. I’m not saying everything should be happy go-lucky, but I could’ve included a few beats of humor or serenity in the midst of the chaos.

4. Good writing outshines wordplay trickery. I went with two characters with the same name as a way of driving home the point that we’re all pretty similar. In retrospect, the confusion that causes for readers doesn’t seem to be worth any supposed payoff. (Critique would have caught this… to her credit, my wife told me this was a problem and I foolishly went along with my grand plan instead.)

5. There’s no rush if you’re self-publishing. I let myself be fooled by the “deadline” of the nanowrimo reward. But that reward only saved me maybe five dollars. On the one hand, it spurred me to finish the project and get it out into the open, which I might not have otherwise done. On the other hand, it created a false sense of urgency that blinded me to some of the areas where I could have written a much better novel. Better to get it right than to regret missed opportunities. Like many things in life, victory in the battle to become a writer goes sometimes not to the swift

Lessons (hopefully) learned. I will do better next time. 

Best Indentions

I should be posting a link to a published novel on CreateSpace right now…

Instead, I’m uploading a revised copy of the manuscript, after which I’ll have to wait (again) for the review process to complete.

Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons...
Warning signs are usually placed for good reasons…

Being this close to putting a novel on the market is exciting and a little nerve-wracking. Like a cold pool on a hot summer day, I just want to dive in and get the initial discomfort over with.

But the very first lesson in my Elements of Critique e-book is about proper format and appearance.

And when I saw a missing paragraph indent on the very first page of the novel, despite a couple thorough reviews, I knew I needed to take another look for more issues.

I fixed three: the original offending indent, a quotation mark all by its lonesome, and an overlooked * * * * * I often use between scenes in my manuscripts.

None of those would have been the end of the world. But I know how easily I become critical of self-published but poorly edited works. I know how distracting a missing punctuation mark or misspelled word can be.

If you’re going to do something, they say, take the time to do it right. No one will care that I had the best intentions to release a proper draft. All they’ll see is the result of my effort. So I need to make sure that the final product is correct.

Plus, when I pause to consider how different this process would be a decade or two ago, I have no reason to complain. Within a day, I’ll have a corrected proof copy ready for me to approve, and the book will be available. I don’t have to wait weeks for a letter from a publishing house, then wait a few more to send back the updated draft, then wait still more for a rough copy…

Yep, I have nothing to complain about.

The book is titled “Not to the Swift,” from a verse in Ecclesiastes that reminds us the victory in a race is not always to the fastest, nor is triumph in battle always to the strongest.

The “race” to publish quality work takes time too, which is frustrating.

But I’ll be happier with the end result, and more importantly, so will the readers.

So… deep breath, sip of coffee, back into the cover selection process…

Details Details

Nothing draws a reader of out the story like a glaring error.

(Did you catch that one? I bet some of you cringed at the sight of it.)

Despite my comments about Cinema Sins and other such critics that love to tear apart every film or TV show released, there’s a valuable lesson from seeing one of their reviews.

They point out glaring errors. These might not be glaring to you or me, but to someone it’s obvious that Katniss was holding the bow in her left hand, and suddenly it was in her right. Or Hawkeye had only one arrow left, and then he had four in the next scene.

They catch mistakes in movies where it was daytime when the main character arrived at a building, then suddenly it’s nighttime when the characters are near a window, then it’s day outside again when they leave.

Man, that’s a long meeting!

The reason I bring this up is because the same can be true in our writing… especially with the rise of self-publishing and a decline in use of services like professional editing.

When I write, sometimes there are facts I need to research, something I’m worried would expose my limited knowledge on a subject. More often, there are details I haven’t sorted out yet. Or there are names, places and descriptions I jotted down weeks ago (let’s be honest, months ago) which I don’t remember right now.

I normally deal with this, if I remember exactly where to look, by double-checking the applicable part earlier in the draft. Or I take advantage of being a “planner” writer–I keep lengthy spreadsheets and scattered files documenting all future plans and essential plot details.

I don’t know how “pantsers” do it (that is, those who write by the seat of their pants, no significant planning involved).

But that fact-checking kills momentum, and when I’m writing in the moment, I want to keep it going as long as possible.

So I leave notes. But I’ve ignored those in the past, so I leave notes in ALLCAPS, and yes, in bold, underlined italics… maybe even turned RED.

See? I’m not kidding.

I’ll type:

“a cool autumn day — IS IT REALLY AUTUMN??”

“Jo revealed her Gracebrand — is that what I gave her?”

“Lyllithe saw no sign of the Mudborn — check name”

I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve even sent out critique pieces with these included.

But the fact is, these details matter. People notice. Lazy writing throws off readers, who then throw out books (or give bad reviews online).

Since we all have to go back and edit anyway, might as well take the time to get the little things right.

What fact-checking / detail-noticing plan works best for you? Let me know in a comment.

Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?

Never Gonna Give You Up.

Nickelback, or Creed.

Amy’s Baking Company. (It’s from an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that created a viral outlash on the Internet.)

Some things are universally reviled. (Seriously, the baking company episode is amazing and horrible. My wife is watching it now and like a train wreck, I cannot avert my eyes.)

While compiling my list for the A to Z, I saw ‘y’ and the first thing that came to mind was the much-hated ‘-ly’ of adverbs.

Soon after joining a critique group, I discovered that “-ly” words have a huge target painted on them. They were one of several problems highlighted with comments and lengthy explanations from our hostess. At first, I thought, “Surely they’re not so bad. I can occasionally use them, right? Sometimes they help clearly and fully communicate the meaning of the sentence.”

I was wrong, or at least too optimistic.

It’s so bad that I find submission guidelines for magazines with statements like the following:

We do not use adverbs in our magazine. If a sentence is written with an adverb, rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb.

The general rule is that adverbs are a form of telling instead of showing. I feel I’m breaking my ‘R’ post of repetition since I talked about showing versus telling already. But adverbs show up so often, and receive so much negative feedback, I wanted to devote an entire post to this subject.

The problem is, using an adverb tries but fails to tell the reader how a thing is done, which makes for weak writing and less interesting reading.

If a character is walking slowly, writing “walking slowly” doesn’t give the reader a picture. It tells the reader how a thing was done, and does a poor job of it. What does that even mean? How slow is “slow” in this case? Is it a careful kind of slow, a stumbling gait, or a casual stroll?

“Snow fell quickly” is… something, I suppose. My mind pictures more snowflakes fluttering down to the ground with the adverb present, sure. But is it a blizzard? Is it blinding? Is it building up or melting away, weighing down branches and covering rooftops? Who knows?

“The wind blew strongly in Lyllithe’s face” tells nothing. Is she uncomfortable or is she hypothermic? Does she struggle to make headway? Are her clothes flapping with each gust?

On the other hand, “Lyllithe stumbled through knee-deep snow, shivering and rubbing her arms in the driving wind” is showing the reader a picture through action.

The difference is obvious. So I look for adverbs when I critique, and point out these problems where applicable. On my better days, I’ll provide a suggested verb or two.

The magazine’s standard is a good rule of thumb: When an adverb feels necessary, consider if there’s any other stronger verb instead. There are exceptions, and we’ll see adverbs in published material. (I even used an ‘-ly’ adverb in my fourth line.)

These don’t have to be forbidden, but they should at least be rare. After all, even “Never Gonna Give You Up” is good sometimes for a laugh or a rick-roll.

Elements of Critique: Voice

Watching kids learn to speak is one of my favorite parenting experiences.

I had my three year old in the car on a quick errand. We decided to bring lunch home to wifey and the other kidlets, so I asked my son where we should go.

“Umm… we need… cake pop!” (He recently tried a Starbucks cake pop for the first time.) “And I want… Power-ate!” (He has also developed a love for blue PowerAde.)

“So, Starbucks for cake pops, then McDonalds to get lunch and PowerAde?”

He replies, “Yeah. That is good idea!”

No one intentionally taught him the concept of a “good idea.” He’s learning and developing his own patterns of speech from what he hears us saying. He’s developing his own voice.

I have four children. I know what each of them sounds like, but I also know innately how they speak. Give them a bit of information to communicate, and it’s going to come out four very different ways–no surprise, because we each have our own way of speaking.

When critiquing, I look for a consistent voice that seems authentic to the character or the writer.

Consistency matters because once a voice is established, any break in it will create a distraction. If a character speaks with a drawl and drops the ‘g’ in all ‘-ing’ words, then I expect to see that telltale sign in the dialogue throughout the entire story. (Of course, writers must beware. The difficulty of reading altered spelling to depict an accent or dialect might outweigh any desired benefit.

If a character speaks with formality, thus she does not use contractions or vulgar speech, that may be a fine way to give her a voice. I will watch to see if she breaks that form at some point for reasons that don’t advance the story. (The prim and proper lady who curses in the face of mounting difficulties might be a way to show the reader how the stress is affecting her.)

In non-fiction, the writer’s voice still shines through, and must be consistent. If the piece is informal, such as a blog post, then maybe levity and an “at-home” sense of freely flowing speech would be appropriate. The writer might type out exactly what he would say out loud if the reader were sitting across a table. On the other hand, if a piece is more academic, then levity and familiarity in writing would not serve the purpose. That shift in voice would probably feel out of place or even inappropriate.

Consistency builds up the authenticity of the character or writer. Once I know how they “speak,” I come to believe them. They seem more real or influential as I read.

Authenticity comes from the writer knowing their own style or that of the character. I know I have missed something concerning authentic voice when a reader says, “I can’t hear the hero saying that. It sounds wrong to me.” I will note that if I am critiquing and find such an instance.

The problem might be a choice of words that doesn’t match the setting or tone of the piece. I had a teenager in a fantasy novel replying to an adult woman in an argument with “Lady.” Not “my lady” at the end of a statement, but “I don’t know what you expected, lady.” The biting tone might have been correct, but the word choice sounds far too modern.

Word choice can also trip writers up when we grab words without a good understanding of their nuances. Like a child using a word the wrong way because they don’t fully grasp its meaning, a writer armed with a thesaurus can be a dangerous thing. Without careful attention, we might see constructs like “the aroma of sewage” and “the stench of fresh-baked pie.” The words are correct for which of the five senses is utilized. But clearly they’re not the right words for the job.

Similar issues might arise from “Word of the Day” aids, new words we discover and love, or attempts at showy and evocative description. The words we select must feel natural; writing that calls attention to itself misses the point. Usually this is where I find metaphors that don’t quite translate and descriptions that fall flat.

In most of these cases, I will highlight, offer what that passage said to me, and offer a suggestion on how to clarify or fix the issue. That way writers can learn how readers receive their words, and make appropriate changes.

That creates a better piece now and a stronger voice and more consistent writer down the road.

And that, for certain, is “good idea!”

Elements of Critique: Keep

When my daughter was about 3, she came up with a phrase she’d say whenever she hugged me tight and refused to let go:

“You are my keep!”

It’s a special memory. Sure, I might not remember the day of the week, or what I was wearing, or when the last time was that she said it. (Our wily teenage daughter refuses to let me know that I am still her ‘keep,’ at least not overtly.)

But I cherish those moments forever.

Where critiquing another writer’s work is concerned, proposing cuts or changes is fairly easy. “That sounds weak.” “Fix the spelling.” “Why would the villain do that?”

But in order to improve, writers also need to know what hits home. We have to remember to point out what to keep.

When an analogy paints the perfect picture, or a scene tugs at my heart just so… when I learn something unexpected and interesting, or when a character’s reaction shocks me… when the chapter ends and I absolutely must know whether the hero survives…

That’s when I need to highlight, insert comment, and find a way to tell the writer, “This is my keep!”

I have to remember: To be as useful as possible, critique must be constructive.

The end result may look like a failed exam in grade school, red ink or yellow word-processor highlight all over the place. That can be overwhelming, especially if someone’s new to receiving real critique on their pet projects.

A “keep” here or there with an encouraging comment about why that part works well can be a positive form of teaching or guiding a fellow writer. “Man, that phrase was inspired.” “That’s an awesome word picture; I can see that like a movie in my head.” “Ouch, her words were harsh! Great job with that argument.”

In other words, Keep on doing that. You’re doing well. That’s a memory that will stay with me as a reader.

Even more than the positive reinforcement of good writing habits, there’s another reason to include “keeps” in a critique.

Just like my teenage daughter is not very obvious or communicative about her affection, a writer may not be very obvious about the powerful internal struggle battering their wavering confidence. A well-timed “You are my keep” might make a big difference between them giving it up and them giving it another shot.

Speaking of which…

To my readers, thank you so much for coming back for more. To those who commented or shared these A to Z posts, you spur me on to keep going. I’ve received more positive feedback on this series than I ever expected possible.

And most of all, my deepest thanks to the members of my critique group, who have taught me so much by word and example. Though obligation forces me to move away soon, you all are truly my keeps, and I’ll cherish those moments always.

Critique Group on Steroids

There’s a special moment coming today that both excites me and fills me with dread.

It’s not tonight’s special date with the wifey – we’re going to the symphony, something she’s been wanting to do since we came to Omaha.

It’s not our 2nd annual Christian Writers’ conference today, with a special guest couple who are going to talk about songwriting (a passion of mine). I’m looking forward to hearing what all the speakers have to say.

It’s not even the silly skit we’re going to perform for the writers in the audience. I can handle getting up and saying a few lines in public without heart palpitations.

So what has me all a-flutter?

The first two chapters of my main writing project are going to get professionally critiqued during a 20-minute sit-down with an editor.

I belong to a critique group with at least a few folk who can be “mean enough” to tell me when something I write just doesn’t work for them. But we’re all encouraging with one another, and so it can sometimes feel like we’re all patting each other on the back.

This editor has no reason to waste his time and mine by sticking to niceties and compliments. In fact, I imagine he’ll pull no punches precisely because that’s what he’s there for.

So I’m cringing a bit, but I’m giddy at the prospect too.

We’ll see if I’m singing the same tune in a few hours.

Autocorrect Fail

one of the few clean examples I could find...
What the–? Auto Correct! Oh, you!

Here are some words you probably didn’t hear in the news recently:

“Some kids had some automatic weapons they didn’t need.” – First Lady Michelle Obama

The quote comes from an unedited version of an ABC interview. In context, she’s talking about the tragic death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendelton in Chicago.

This sounds like a problem! Good lord, why would we leave automatic weapons in the hands of children? Isn’t there a law against that? Can’t we do something to stem the tide of automatic weapons flowing into the hands of our sweet children?

Thankfully, ABC was helpful (like all good unbiased media should be, right?). They edited the interview “for time” before airing it on Good Morning America. By “edited for time” I mean that they took out seven seconds of words from two segments lasting over eight and a half minutes. And the seven seconds were the quote you see in italics above, helpfully removed mid-sentence with a visual cutaway to cover the edit for viewers at home.

Ain’t technology grand?

The context of the quote, from the Fox article: “She was absolutely right. She did everything she was supposed to do. She was standing in a park, with her friends, in a neighborhood blocks away from where my kids grew up, where our house is. And she was caught in the line of fire. I just don’t want to keep disappointing our kids in this country. I want them to know that we put them first.”

The original unedited quote was “she was caught in the line of fire because some kids had some automatic weapons they didn’t need.

First off, yes, it’s a Fox News article that’s drawing on a piece from the Washington Times. I can guess what my liberal friends are thinking. “Right wing agenda! Tea Party propaganda!” And I fell for it! Oh noes!

Wait, how is it a Right wing agenda to point out that ABC happily covered up a glaring error in the First Lady’s understanding of this tragedy? Was it Right wing propaganda to point out edits made to Romney campaign speeches in order to paint him as an out-of-touch buffoon? Were we falling for the deceptions of the Right when we learned about NBC editing the 911 call made by George Zimmerman?

And isn’t the whole point of the media (of whatever stripe) to report the actual facts (as if there are other kinds of facts), not their particular slant and their edited made-for-target-audience version of events?

Is Fox guilty of stuff like this? Probably. I’m sure they like making the Right look good, just like ABC and others try to put the Left in a positive light. I’m no Fox clone, unable to see their position and their bias in reporting. You’ll note that I also linked to a CNN political article in this post.

What I’m saying is, I expect it to be a rule of media that they report what actually happened. If the facts and the tapes don’t tell the story you want, that’s too bad. You don’t get to edit the evidence to paint the picture of reality you want.

(Likewise, dear White House, you don’t get to threaten the press when they report the facts. I guess I can see why ABC would be so eager to edit the interview and help the First Lady save face.)

Technology gives us tremendous tools to get the word out about a given event at unprecedented speeds compared to how news traveled throughout history. But with that power comes responsibility to stick to the truth, not edit it to suit our whims.