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The Write Life: December

I started December by finishing off a final revision of my Clockman novel. (Yes, another final revision.) This pass included addressing some concerns I had about Chapter 12 and then reviewing the entire manuscript for filler words and adverbs to make sure the sentences were as tight as they could be. I used some of the website apps I’ve talked about previously in Writer Resources (available on Patreon) to assist with these passes, which made looking for filler words and adverbs a breeze.

The manuscript is currently off with a friend from the MFA and my MFA thesis director, and I’m doing a final (“final”) hard-copy review wherein I’m discovering horrifying typos and further tweaking sentences (because I. Am. Unstoppable!) Our formerly feral cat Pink is assisting in this work, but he keeps falling asleep on the job (sometimes literally on top of the book).

I’ve also been preparing a presentation on Non-Traditional Revenue Streams for Writers (like Patreon), which I’ll be presenting at the OCLS Writers Conference on January 26. If you’re local to Central Florida, make sure you register soon! (Seats are going fast.)

 

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DIY Edit: 10 Read Aloud

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

10 Read Aloud

If you feel like grammar and syntax aren’t your strength, try reading your work out loud. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch awkward phrases and rhythms, run-on sentences, and repeated or missing words.

Reading out loud engages a different center in your brain than when we read silently, and it’s easier to find repeated or missing words since you’ve moved from comprehension (which can rely on scanning and interpreting) to performing. The performance aspect is part of what can help you catch errors since you’re now trying to translate those written words into spoken words.

Run-on sentences can be easier to catch when spoken because you physically start running out of breath. If you find yourself taking an awkward gasp in the middle of a sentence, highlight it for further review. Sometimes it’s just a long sentence, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it could mean that you need to use the punctuation more effectively to help the reader navigate the sentence. Good punctuation helps group ideas and show how ideas are related in a sentence, thus showing a reader how to read the sentence. If you’re losing your breath on every sentence, evaluate if there are any you can shorten. A variety of sentence lengths engages the reader and makes your writing more exciting.

If you’re tripping over phrases as you read them aloud, that may be a sign that you should rework the syntax or review the diction. (Honestly, sometimes it means you wrote a tongue twister, so you don’t necessarily have to change everything that trips you up.) Some things don’t sound awkward until they’re read aloud, so taking a pass to read your manuscript—to an empty room or to a friend—can be a crucial step in cleaning it up.

 

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DIY Edit: 09 Long Dialogue Tags

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

09 Long Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags, or dialogue attributions, are meant to identify the speaker for clarity but fade into the background of the narrative. That is why the simple “Joe said” is so celebrated, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself and distract from the dialogue. Even though I’m aware of this, often—especially in first drafts—I wind up with long dialogue tags in which there are multiple actions or descriptions. Having an action or description isn’t a bad thing, but coupling several with the dialogue tag can be confusing and distracting.

To simplify dialogue tags, first you have to identify what is “too long” for a dialogue tag.

  • Winded One way I identify long tags is by reading the dialogue and dialogue tag aloud. If I get winded reading the sentence, or if I have to pause and reframe my tone (because I was expecting the sentence to end earlier), the tag is probably too long.
  • And And And Another method is to look at the construction of the dialogue attribution. Most attributions are in a similar format—”character said, [continued sentence].” If the continued sentence has an “and” in it, or if it is longer than the dialogue that precedes it, it is likely too long.
  • Run On If the topic changes—for example, the dialogue is attributed to Elsie and then the continued sentence starts talking about Mike, or about something that is happening elsewhere—it is probably a run-on sentence. Remember, the dialogue attribution is still a sentence—it’s actually part of the sentence of the dialogue—and it needs to follow the basic rules of sentence construction.

Editing long dialogue tags is often as simple as inserting a period after the attribution and starting a new sentence. Sometimes the information in the sentence needs to be evaluated because it is extraneous or irrelevant (ah, the enthusiasm of the first draft). In any case, careful review of dialogue tags and keeping dialogue attribution brief can help keep the focus on the dialogue and let the attribution fade into the background where it belongs.

 

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DIY Edit: 08 Crutch Phrases

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

08 Crutch Phrases

Crutch phrases are the default phrases we use for descriptions, to move the story along, or to get ourselves back into the work. Because they are our personal defaults, they can appear over and over and over in our work without us consciously realizing that we’re being repetitive. The phrases themselves may not be examples of poor writing, but used in repetition they drag down the writing and clog the narrative.

Crutch phrases are one of the most difficult things to pick out of your own work. A friend or editor might notice your tendency to use the construction “Joe managed to [verb]” or that people are always looking over their shoulders to make observations, but since your crutch phrases are your go-to phrases, they are practically invisible to the author—until they’re pointed out. So how can you identify crutch phrases without getting a secondary reader?

A few of the strategies I use for identifying my own crutch phrases I’ve already addressed in DIY Edit. Anything related to creating distance is sure to help with crutch phrases because those strategies help you come back to the work with fresh eyes. You also might consider reading slowly and using a highlighter to mark the manuscript for phrases you think are familiar. One of the most effective strategies for identifying crutch phrases requires a little technology.

Free apps like Text Analyser and the Phrase Frequency Counter can analyze a story to find repeated phrases. In my personal search I discovered that an app like this was a good starting point. The app would identify that looking over shoulders was an overused gesture in my novel, and then, by searching for “shoulder” throughout the document, I could start finding all the permutations of the phrase, including hes, shes, and specific characters performing the action. It took a little organization, pattern analysis, and then creativity to assess whether or not to leave one of these crutch phrases or revise it, but overall this search helped to elevate my prose and the whole exercise made me more aware of my habits as a writer. Being aware of your crutch phrases is the best way to avoid them, or at least find them in the future.

 

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Making Sense of First Draft Mess

This last week I dove back into the novel I worked on during National Novel Writing Month. While I had a successful NaNoWriMo in 2017, I also took a helter-skelter approach to putting words on the page. I jumped around in my outline when I ran out of steam. I allowed new, unplanned characters to appear and take my attention. I discovered solutions to plot problems and simply picked up the threads as if I had already written the scenes—or I wrote a divergent scene that covered those solutions, while still leaving the first scene in place (essentially writing an alternative universe, if you’re playing along from a sci-fi angle). All of that is great for writing 50,000 words, but not as good for writing a cohesive novel.

After a comfortable break—and wrapping another project—I’m ready to tackle this mess, and thought it was a good time to talk about how I start a revision.

Make a Schedule

The first task is to assess how much I have to read, and then make a schedule. While I’d like to finish the assessment pass in two weeks, I have a lot to read and some other obligations this month, so I’ve stretched my schedule to finish by the end of February.

I considered dividing the number of scenes or number of words by the number of days, but that can lead to some awkward splits and I’d rather make sure I’m comparing multiple options for the same scene on the same day. Any scenes not divided into chapters (which is most of them), I grouped by related content and then divided those into reasonable chunks. I also took my work and social calendar into account, so I wasn’t scheduling too much on a day when I was otherwise busy. At the end of this process I had a calendar and knew exactly what I should be working on each day.

Read the Draft

Once I’m ready to start reading, I gather my materials:

  • My manuscript (on the computer, currently)
  • A notebook
  • A pen
  • Highlighters

I set up my notebook with the working title of the manuscript, date, and the title of the first scene. Each new section of my notes starts with the title of the scene. Right now the scene titles are a letter for the first name of the POV character and a few words describing what happens. My first scene is “A: Boarding” because it’s when Alex boards the pirate ship.

This assessment pass is strictly to review ideas, figure out what’s missing from the plot, and choose which of those divergent paths I like best, so a lot of my notes are questions. Sometimes those questions are about when information is revealed (and I may find the answer in a later scene). Sometimes those questions are about research or world building that I need to develop. Generally most of my notes center around the plot and character relationships. I also jot down the existing character, setting, and world details, so I can start refining those aspects to later create consistency.

Within each section I take notes roughly in chronological order. I try to group character and setting details together, which may mean that I leave a few blank lines after a character introduction or when we enter a new setting, just in case I wrote some other pertinent details later in the scene.

At the end of each scene I write a one or two sentence summary. This summary should include the most important thing about the scene (from a plot and/or character standpoint) and will later act as a guide to help me figure out if the scene is important enough to make it to the next draft and if it’s in the correct place.

As a final step, I highlight headings so I can reference information later—characters are pink, world building and setting is blue, and plot is yellow. I use green to mark scenes I want to keep or elements in scrapped scenes I want to include in the next draft.

Assess the Draft

After I’ve finished the entire manuscript, I review my notes on what I’ve already written to figure out what adjustments need to be made to my outline, what scenes still need to be written, and what scenes belong in the trash file (I never delete my work while I’m drafting—I never know when I might want to return to an idea or description). By the time I’ve done that review of my notes, I should be ready to start writing again! We’ll find out at the end of February.

DIY Edit: 07 Tense Shift Triggers

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

07 Tense Shift Triggers

Aside from reading over my work very carefully, one way I can find tense shifts is by being aware of times when I’m most likely to have a tense shift.


Past to Present

When writing in past tense, I’m careful to check for tense shifts after long sections of dialogue or thought and after flashbacks or memories.

Dialogue can cause a tense shift because the dialogue is usually written in present tense. Fast-paced dialogue with few tags or lines of narration can get me out of the habit of writing past tense, so when I finally slip back to narration, there’s a tense shift from past tense to present tense. Thought (which is also often written in present tense) can be a trigger for a similar reason.

Using the past perfect tense to describe something that happened in the “further” past from the story timeline (something that had happened) is another warning sign for a potential tense shift. As I transition to the story present, my mind sometimes wants to switch to present tense instead of returning to simple past, so flashbacks and memories are another good time to carefully check tenses.


Present to Past

My biggest problem with switching from present tense to past tense is that I’m so familiar writing and reading in past tense, I’m often surprised to find that I was writing a story in present tense at all (and I usually check to see if it’s the result of a tense shift). But when I have discovered shifts in my present tense fiction they tend to be based around flashback and memories and around breaks in my writing schedule.

Because I’m so used to writing and reading in past tense, it feels awkward to use past tense to talk about events that happened “yesterday” in a present tense story. Often, I find that I switched to past perfect to describe the earlier events and then I slipped into past tense for the narrative, instead of going back to present tense. Oops.

I’ve also noticed that I make more tense shifts after taking a break from working on a story. When I get out of the story’s world, I tend to forget what tense I’m writing and assume it must be past tense. I’ve tried to train myself to confirm the tense before I get 500 or 1,000 words into a scene in the wrong tense, but it’s a tough thing to remember when I’m also trying to remember character and world details.

 

While these are triggers I’ve identified in my own work, they may not be your tense shift triggers. As you edit and revise your work, pay attention to when you catch tense shifts and see if you can find a pattern. Do they happen mostly after dialogue? At the start of new scenes? When you’re writing from a particular point of view? Analyzing the patterns of our mistakes is the path to finding and correcting them in the future.

 

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The Secret to Receiving Constructive Criticism

Receiving constructive criticism can be as difficult as giving it. It can be challenging to divorce personal feelings—and all the hard work put into the previous draft—from someone else’s opinion. But when I put my story out there to receive constructive criticism, I need to be open to it. I have to put aside my feelings and understand that these comments aren’t about my quality as a writer; they’re about the execution in this one specific piece of writing. Even if I think it’s my very best work, it’s only my very best work so far. Think of all the ways it can be improved! So, starting with a deep breath, constructive criticism can be the best thing for my work, especially if I’m open to change. I have a three step-method for taking in constructive criticism that includes listening to what is said, evaluating how that critique fits with my plan for the story, and then getting excited to revise!

Listen

When I get feedback from a critique, I start by reading each comment as though I’m another evaluator on the manuscript. I’m not the author when I first read a critique. I’m another objective party, taking in someone else’s comments to get the big picture of the feedback. I start by reading the summary comments and then all of the in-line comments before making any decisions about how to act on those comments.

Evaluate

Now that I’ve listened objectively, I get to be the author again! It’s important to keep some objectivity, after all the purpose of constructive criticism is to identify ways to strengthen the writing. Now, though, I start deciding how to address each comment. Should I keep the exact suggestion a reviewer made? Should I accept that something’s hinky but enact my own solution? Should I ignore the comment? Ignoring a comment is a perfectly legitimate way to respond to a critique. Someone might not “get” what I’m doing, and it’s okay for me, the author, to decide that I know what’s best for my work.

One method I use for evaluating comments is to have the comments and my story side by side in separate documents. If I disagree with a comment outright, I don’t move it to my story document. If it’s an easy fix (a grammatical error or improving word choice), I immediately do it. If it’s a trickier one or one that I’m not sure I want to make, I summarize the feedback as in-line comments on my story document and add my thoughts. At the end of the evaluation, I have all the comments I will or possibly want to respond to on my story document.

Get Excited

After every critique I walk away feeling excited to work on my story. I’ve thought about the feedback and, through evaluation, have come up with at least a few solutions to strengthen some of the weaknesses of the manuscript. Yes, I might have a lot of work ahead. Yes, someone might not have seen all of my brilliance. But I now have ideas for making the story better, and that’s a pretty exciting thing.