Monday, 22 October 2018

Overcoming Writer's Block in a Novel

I think most writers suffer from writer's block every so often, and I'm no exception. One of the reasons it happens to me is something I call "writing myself into a corner." This is usually a dead end in the plot, but this time it was a little different.

In my opinion, a good story should keep feeling richer and pull you in deeper as it goes. But something wasn't right in my novel, and it kept becoming more and more "not right" as I kept writing. After a while, the narrative turned so flat that writing it became a chore and I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to read it. But it wasn't the plot that was killing the story--at least not the main plot.

To find the problem, I first analyzed the manuscript and then just let my mind relax to give my creative side a chance to work. Analysis found that there were a lot of important plot elements that required pages of description just so the reader could understand some later event. To keep these descriptive passages interesting, I had put characters into them, making them interact with everything I needed to describe. And of course, I couldn't just have scenes with people doing things for no reason. I had to follow them up with the reasons why they did those things, and the reasons had to advance the plot. Pretty soon I had so many new subplots they were damming up the story and spreading it out instead of letting it move forward.

The solution I came up with was to convert it to a screenplay. The cliche "a picture is worth a thousand words" really fits here. A camera shot lasting a few seconds can replace pages of description and eliminate the need for the extra subplots.

So I copied a streamlined version of the story to my screenplay software, and now it's fun to write again. As I write, the story keeps getting richer and pulling me in deeper.

Friday, 24 August 2018

What Makes Editing Professional

I love it when I hear from readers. I especially liked the comment Skye Warren left on a post in my old blog, because Skye really took the time to join the conversation. Her comment was practically a post in itself. She said:
One of the problems is the narrow defintion of "editing" to mean proofreading, when in publishing-speak it actually refers to content editing and line editing. Can an average person with an English degree and sharp eye for typos become a proficient proofreader? Maybe so. But can they come close to a professional editor in term of story structure, character development, deep POV, voice? No, that's really a professional editor. Not saying someone couldn't move up that way, but it takes all the experience and knowledge of any fully professional endeavor. And the people who can do it well are not only making a full time living this way, they are booked for months (sometimes years) out. So can you get them to work on your manuscript on a barter system? No. You can't. So implying that indies can achieve anywhere near a quality level that publishers do (even smaller publishers) through barter is misleading.

Now I'm not a stickler for editing as much as some. I put my first two books out on more of a whim, and though they'd been read by upwards of 10 critique partners/beta readers, I didn't have them professionally edited. But as soon as they sold even a few copies and I decided to continue on as a self pub author (a publisher, really) I put 100% of their sales into editing. But even then it was copy editing, or basically, proofreading to fix any errors. Now I've finally been able to move into content editing, line editing, and proofreading. Thank goodness! Because I know these are quality "minimums" for a publisher, which is what a self publisher really is. By minimums, I'm saying that it will, of course, happen that we'll publish without them. Our first books, we're just seeing how things go. But if we want to be taken seriously as a self published author, these are things we must do. They're not optional, and the only way to get professional services is to pay for them.
Skye brings up a couple of very good points. The word 'editing' is, indeed, often misunderstood. To be publishable, a novel needs four types of editing. Pavarti K. Tyler does a great job of explaining the first three:
→ The Content Editor
This is the professional eye which looks over your manuscript with a fine tooth comb. They will catch things like inconsistent character behavior/speech, style issues, thematic variances and readability. A content editor will be able to help you adjust your language by audience (lit fic vs. YA – there is a difference!), make sure everything makes sense, has believable dialogue and a plausible plotline. Many people skip this step, thinking their editor who fixes commas will do this as well. If you are lucky, they will, although the cost for editors who are that skilled is quite high and often times, even if the individual is capable, their attention to other issues in your manuscript might mean they miss something that could make the difference between an ok story and an epic novel.
→ The Copy Editor
In journalism, a copy editor is essentially a fact checker and someone who protects the publication from libel. For our purposes a Copy Editor is more like a professional proof-reader. Someone who performs this task usually does minimal rewriting for the sake of efficiency of prose as opposed to stylistic choices. They check the manuscript for clarity and flow. In my experiences most copy editors will also do line editing as the two are tied closely together and work well as a two part process.
→ The Line Editor
. . . The line editor generally isn’t there to discuss story arc or make sure you understand how to use a dialogue tag. Instead, they are there to make sure you are putting out the best quality product possible. Line editors will go over each sentence to make sure it is ready for publication. They check for grammar, punctuation, spelling, consistency and word usage (Is he your Principle or your PrinciPAL?) and can often assist with rewriting/rewording sections that need help.

And the final type of editing your book will need is proofreading (and proofreading, and proofreading again, so many times it will drive you crazy). Sometimes this is considered part of the line editing job, and sometimes it's mentioned separately, but no matter how you talk about it, the task is the same. Proofreading starts when your book appears to be ready to print (or upload, as the case may be), in other words, when you think all the errors have been corrected and the book is error-free. It's the step of catching all those misspellings, missing commas and homonym-substitutions ('slough' for 'slue') that somehow got through anyway. And it's not done until that wonderful final pass when not a single error is found in the whole book.

The second great point that Skye brings up is that for reasons I think I shall never understand, some indie writers actually think it's okay to skimp on quality. Of course, that gives the rest of us a bad name, so just like those first black students in 'white' schools in the 60's, we really have to shine if we're going to challenge the stereotype.

Skye's third great point is one she demonstrates rather than talks about, because she's a victim of it. I do freelance editing for online ad copy, so maybe I see it more blatantly than a lot of people. But do a little research and you'll find it's a common practice for people who make a living by providing a particular service to try to convince gullible members of the public that they are indispensable.

A related misconception is the idea that all qualified editors edit full-time for a living, and none of them choose to write books, except maybe books about editing. Real life, of course, is much more diverse than that, which is why there are plenty of 'real' editors out there willing to trade their services for something they need and either can't or don't want to do. 

A fact we tend to overlook - maybe because it's so obvious - is that editing skill doesn't come from money. It comes from training. And the level of editing required for book publishing can be gotten only by a combination of high-quality training and personal dedication to the craft.

Sometimes it's tempting to take the easy way out and say that money is the answer. For the lucky few with enough money, it means writing a check or setting up a funds transfer and going on in the blind faith that the book is now publishable. For most writers it's a convenient excuse to skip the editing process, as it's too expensive anyway.

But we're novelists. Creativity and clever solutions are our specialty. So we really can't get away with using the money excuse. We just have to work together and make it happen.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Value of Details in Imaginary Worlds

One of the most fascinating (and time-consuming) parts of writing a Star Trek book is including lots of details that tie it together with the shows, movies and books that are already out there. After watching the DS9 episode "Cardassians" (2x05), in which the character Garak enjoyed a smelly beverage called rokassa juice, saying it calmed his nerves, I knew rokassa juice had to be in my novel.

One of the main characters in Cardassian Language is a military commander in wartime: a tough, proud leader in an already arrogant, macho culture. It would be all too easy to paint him as an irredeemable villain with no weaknesses, no doubts, no humanity. Of course, if I did that, he wouldn't feel real and I wouldn't be much of a writer, but I can't have him breaking down in tears, either. That's where rokassa juice comes in.

In its introductory scene, it's not the rokassa juice that tells the reader he's having a bad day: we get a rare opportunity to use a battle injury to hint at his vulnerabilities. But the rokassa juice will, if I do my job right, establish itself over time as a clue or symbol, and be very useful in scenes where there are no convenient bodily signs.

Here's the passage, from Chapter 18, condensed for this post. We're on a Cardassian warship, and a human prisoner has been summoned for a chat with the Gul, or Captain:

The Gul put one hand on his chair and the other on the desk and pushed himself up on his arms. Slowly, he transferred his weight to his legs and turned stiffly to the replicator. "Coffee, cream and sugar," he ordered, and "coffee, black."

"You're hurt," I said.

He put the cups on his desk and lowered himself back into his chair. "A present from Starfleet," he quipped, "a small token of friendship."

"What's it all about, anyway, this war?" I stood, picked up my cup in its holder and sat down again.

"There was a time when I would have answered, 'Expansionist aggression,' but now I'm afraid it's become little more than a political game."

"Dangerous game," I observed. "I wonder if there's anything I can do."

"I doubt there's anything you could do."

"I see. You haven't touched your coffee."

He picked up his coffee, took a small sip and put it back down.

"Is your leg going to be okay?" I asked.

"Yes, thank you, It's just a temporary inconvenience. But I understand your injury is not from the battle."

I stared into my coffee. "No, not exactly. But Iba only kicked me to keep me from hitting my head."

"I believe your head would never have been in danger if you had not disobeyed my Riyak."

I gripped my cup-frame tightly with both hands in an effort to prevent them from flying up to my face. "True," I admitted. "Earlier you said something about turning the heat down in my room. That would be fine with me, actually. To be honest, it's a little too warm for my taste, and I know you're worried about expenses."

"Might you be referring to my remark that not all the rooms in this ship are warm?"

"Yes," I said, "that was it."

"The rooms in question are specialized storage bays, but I've found they also function effectively as quarters for uncooperative prisoners. I'm afraid they are in fact cold, rather than comfortably cool as you imagine. Oxygen saturation is limited, to slow oxidization of stored materials; it's breathable but very thin. There are no shower or toilet facilities."

"And you would actually put me in there if I refused to work?"

"Of course. I enjoy our little meetings, Vaine, but there's no more time for this one. I'll send for you again another day."

"Yes, Gul." In spite of my efforts, it came out in a growl. I stood up and hobbled to the door.

"Rokassa juice," I heard the Gul say to the replicator as the door swished shut behind me.

Friday, 6 July 2018

My Screenplay Location Is Getting World Attention (Well, Sort Of)

This next, as Paul Harvey used to say, is partly personal.

As I write this, France and Uruguay are playing their quarter-final World Cup match in a Russian city
The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Nizhny Novgorod. Thanks to Culture Trip.
most of us Americans have never heard of: Nizhny Novgorod. And it gives me an odd feeling of almost surreal connection.

That's because Nizhny Novgorod happens to be one of the cities I chose to mention (chose to bomb into oblivion, actually, but I claim immunity because I later restored it) in a science-fiction screenplay. Here's an excerpt:

(to Tejat)
I was just telling them, my last assignment was in a place called Nijny-Novgorod.
(to everyone at the table)
I hated that post, but now I kind of miss it. We used to go to this bar. It was very old, I guess, and some of the others liked it because you could get vodka there for cheap. But I miss it for the people. There were some crazy characters there. I'm going to go back and visit, if they don't post me on some starship somewhere.
(shaken, but making an effort to be friendly)
You could always program the holodeck with it, if you do end up on a starship.
(with her mouth full)
Yeah, Faine, great idea. I'm going to do that. You know, they say Leo Tolstoy was a patron there.
What is that city, Lobi? Niv...
Nijny-Novgorod. It's in Russia, on Earth.
Mowrogh walks to an empty workstation.
Computer, display images of Nijny-Novgorod.
Please specify parameters.
It's a city on Earth.
There is no record of a Nijny-Novgorod in the Sol system in the last five hundred years.
Nado sits at her desk having a videoconference with Admiral Lee.
Wow, Merenish, this could turn out to be something big after all.
I'm sorry to bother you at home, but I wasn't sure this should wait until morning.
No, don't be silly. I remember Nijny-Novgorod. Never been there, but I've certainly heard of it. Near Moscow, I believe. As soon as I get off here I'm going to send a couple of cadets out there, just to take a look at it. Ten to one, it's just a computer error and we can stop worrying about it.
That would be nice.
Yes, but meanwhile we should plan for the worst. If this really is a missing city, somehow removed from not only the present but the past as well, then you've got yourself one hell of a mission. What do you need, Merenish, if this turns out to be true? Your team was put together to catch a shapeshifter; this new mission would be very different.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Why You Should Polish Your Manuscript

One way you can tell professional novelists from hobbyists is by seeing who polishes their manuscripts. Polishing a manuscript is the last step in writing it, but many new writers make the mistake of leaving out this essential step.
A real ad served on a site I visited

Because polishing a manuscript is also called self-editing, many writers confuse it with editing and suppose it's someone else's job. After all, you can't edit your own work, right?

Right, but your editor can't do her job until you've finished doing yours. (For the sake of clarity, I'll refer to writers as 'he' and people who help them as 'she'--just because I happen to be a female editor.)

The Goal

It's just about every writer's dream to produce a hit that sells hundreds of thousands of copies...or why not a hundred million while we're at it? While there's no secret recipe for winning the bestseller lottery, there are plenty of ways to make sure your book will lose. And one of those ways is letting readers find mistakes in their copies.

To sell well, your book needs to create buzz. To get buzz, you have to put it into people's heads that your book is 'the real thing.' If they think it's an amateur attempt at a novel, or a manuscript that's so good it's going to be published someday--or anything at all short of a bona fide, perfect final product--that buzz will never have the chance to get started.

So besides having an enticing cover, a killer plot and fascinating but relatable characters, your book--if it's ever going to have a chance to hit the big time--needs to have:
  • Proper spelling
  • Proper punctuation
  • Proper capitalization
  • Proper spacing
  • Grammar that accurately communicates your message on the first reading
  • A consistent, engaging voice

The Process

Now that we know where we're trying to go, how do we get there? The major publishing houses of the old print-book industry perfected a process that works at least as well for us in the internet age as it did for them in their day. It's easier to understand if you look at it backwards, so here it is starting with the final step:
  • 11. Printing
  • 10. Proofreading: A sharp-eyed individual carefully searches the book to catch any stray errors that could hurt its public image.
  • 9. Approval: The author and publisher agree that the manuscript is in its final form and is ready for publication.
  • 8. At his discretion, the author implements the corrections and revisions suggested by the line editor.
  • 7. Line editing: Someone with a fresh perspective catches the errors the author missed and makes suggestions for improvements.
  • 6. Polishing: The author carefully reads through the manuscript, correcting any errors he finds and making sure the narrative sings and every paragraph has the message and tone he was going for. 
  • 5. Rewrites: At his discretion, the author implements the changes suggested by the content editor.
  • 4. Content editing: The content editor makes suggestions to improve aspects such as clarity, structure, flow and suspense.
  • 3. Final solo draft: The author tweaks the manuscript until the glorious story in his head is now fully reproduced in the manuscript.
  • 2. Intermediate drafts: The author improves on the first draft.
  • 1. First draft: The author begins with a very rough version of the story.

What Happens When You Don't Polish Your Manuscript?

Leave out any of these steps, and you seriously undermine the success of every step that comes after. Think about it. If you give your editor something like this...
On top of all of that though, in his effort to posit himself as some kind of martyr “for all people” he tells us that getting on a plane for a few days in sunny Puerto Rico where he cut through standard government used barbed wire to and trespass to be arrested, was posed a major risk to his life as if the government were killing protesters, while at the same time showing us details of the efforts made to be arrested.  
...she's not going to be able to do a whole lot with it. It would be like calling in a maid with a duster after finding your house flattened by a mudslide. The maid will dust the rubble, if you really want her to, but you'll be wasting your money.

More Posts on Polishing Your Manuscript:

How to Edit Your Manuscript by Michael Lane
10 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Derek Haines
On an Economy of Words by Dan Moore

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Five Writing Mistakes You Shouldn't Fix

If you're writing for a scientific journal, then your English should be perfect. But if you're writing a novel, there's such a thing as being too perfect. Here are five rules of perfect English that you should usually break when you're writing fiction or casual nonfiction:

  1. Don't use contractions. Contractions are perfectly acceptable in creative work, and it's your choice as the author whether to use them or not. As we write, each of us settles into a unique voice, and if yours is rich and musical, your readers will look forward to hearing it in their minds as they read each of your books in turn. For most of us, forcing the contractions out of our prose gives it all the grace of a love song full of hiccups.
  2. Don't start a sentence with a conjunction. This is an old rule that's obsolete now. If you pick up a book written in Victorian times, you'll find a lot of very long sentences, their many clauses often joined together by conjunctions, and unless the book uses incorrect grammar on purpose (Huckleberry Finn comes to mind.), you won't find any sentences that begin with conjunctions. And there was no need for it: the thinking was that if you needed a conjunction, then the new clause related somehow to the clause before it, and therefore they both belonged in the same sentence. Modern English values shorter, more concise sentences, and tacking on clause after clause just because their concepts are all related is no longer considered good writing. But a conjunction can still be useful to show how a new clause relates to the one before, even though we no longer stuff them both into the same sentence.
  3. Don't split your infinitives. This rule never did make much sense in English, as Steven Pinker explains:  
  4. Don't dangle your prepositions. The concept behind this rule is that since every preposition has an object, we may as well place each preposition neatly in front of its object to avoid confusion. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it tends to produce a lot of awkward
    Real people don't speak with
    perfect English, so your
    characters shouldn't either
    ... unless they're this guy.
    sentences and may even cause as much confusion as it prevents. But if you want your stories to be full of to whiches and for whats, then have at it.
  5. Make every sentence perfect, even in dialogue. There's just about no more sure way to mark yourself as a dilettante - and provoke your readers to put your book down - than to follow this rule. A good writer creates characters who feel real, and yours won't feel real if their speech sounds pompous or recited. It has been my experience that even most well-educated people make mistakes frequently in speech, even linguistics professors at prestigious universities. But there are a few rules you should be careful to follow in dialogue: the ones that help the reader clearly see what the speaker said. Be diligent with your use of quotation marks, keep your punctuation as it should be, and be careful with your spelling. But don't correct your characters' grammar. How they speak is an important part of who they are.

But whether we are following them or breaking them, rules are not what's important. When our stories finally make it in front of our readers' eyes, all that will matter is whether we have communicated.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Writing Tip: How Adverbs Can Weaken Your Writing, and How to Find Them

I've seen a lot of 'grammar hack' tips that say you can find adverbs by just looking for words ending in -ly. The problem with that is that some words that end in -ly are not adverbs (Think early.) and there are also lots of adverbs that don't end that way.

Don't worry, there's a better way.

What Is an Adverb?

The official definition I had to memorize in home-school was this:

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb.

If you're not a grammar nut, that may be just a bunch of words to you. Don't worry, I'll walk you through it.
'Modify' is just a fancy word for 'change.' In grammar lingo, a modifier is a word that affects another word's meaning in some way.

Adverbs modify verbs.

Some examples:

drove recklessly
drove sadly
drove illegally 
drove fast

The words recklessly, slowly, illegally and fast are adverbs. Each one affects the meaning of the verb drove in a different way.

Drove is an action verb, but some sentences have being verbs instead. Being verbs are words such as is, was, and will be.  Adverbs can modify being verbs, as well. In these examples, the verbs are in bold type and the adverbs are in ALL CAPS:

She was pregnant YESTERDAY.
He will be happier TOMORROW.
Our blankets would be drier INDOORS. 

But how do we know that yesterday, tomorrow and indoors modify the verbs in these sentences and not the nouns or pronouns? Because they wouldn't make any sense that way. Let's try it with the first sentence: There's no such thing as a 'yesterday she.' Same thing goes for being 'yesterday pregnant.' The only thing left for yesterday to modify is was

Another thing I learned in my home-school grammar classes was that adverbs answer questions starting with the words when, why, where, and how. Yesterday answers the question 'When was she pregnant?' 

Adverbs modify adjectives.

It's easy to see how the adverbs affect the meaning of the adjective red in these examples:

bright red
dark red 
almost red

Adverbs modify other adverbs.


One way adverbs weaken our writing is by telling instead of showing. Telling that your character drove recklessly is boring. Showing what happened when she got behind the wheel might be very exciting. Adverbs can also take the punch out of high-energy scenes or make sentences feel cluttered and harder to understand.

But not every adverb is your enemy. In fact, did you know that the word not is an adverb? A 1631 printing of the Bible omitted that adverb just once. Sure enough, it made the sentence much more interesting.

Finding Adverbs

If you're taking a grammar test, then the only reliable way to find all the adverbs in a piece of text is to find the verbs and then see which words modify them (and which ones modify them), and then go through the same process with the adjectives.

But if you're out to strengthen your writing, try this instead:

  • Look for words that tell how something was done (recklessly, fast, sadly, jealously...). Find ways to show instead of tell. The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource for this.
  • Look for words that clutter up your sentences, taking the punch out of your action and the clarity out of your narrative.
Remember, grammar isn't about following a set of rules to the letter. It's about using words to your best advantage.