Writing Process #6: (Self) Editing

YOU have a first draft! Great! But . . . it’s not ready to be published. Not yet. Trust me on this. There’s work to be done.

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The work needs to be edited. Ultimately it needs editing by a professional editor, but before it gets to that stage there’s a lot you can do. For one thing, you just wrote the thing and it’s going to have rough spots all the way through it.

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, after I’ve written each scene I go back over it—just a quick pass to spot obvious screwups. Missed and doubled words, errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. That’s about it. There’s not much point trying to do more right after I’ve written the scene because, well, I’ve only just written it. The words are still in my head. I’m still too close to it. As a result, I can read the scene and still miss some glaring errors.

That’s why, after I’ve written each scene, I only give it a cursory once-over and move on. When the last scene has been written, something like three months will have passed since I wrote the first scene. So if I look at those early scenes again, I’m seeing them a little bit more clearly. Ideally I want to be reading it as if I’d never seen it before, so what I should do next is put the draft away for about ten years, so that I forget I ever wrote it. No, of course that’s not practical.

The first thing I do when I go back to the first scenes I wrote, three or four months earlier, is to re-read, carefully, looking for mistakes. Many people will tell you to read it aloud. The thing about doing that is, it forces you to slow down the pace and avoid just skimming, and that will help you spot errors better than just about anything else. The other thing you’ll find by doing this is passages where the wording is awkward or convoluted. If it doesn’t trip off the tongue, it’ll tie your readers’ brains in knots.

Here are a few of the things I look for in particular:

  • Obvious mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If in doubt, use a style guide. (I use The Chicago Manual of Style, because that’s what my publisher uses.)
  • Consistency. If you use the Oxford comma (I do), then make sure to use it wherever it applies. If you have hyphenated words, use the same hyphenation everywhere. (Example: one of my early stories had a thing called a “road train”—but in some places I hyphenated it as “road-train”, and in others I didn’t.) If you italicise your characters’ thoughts, then be consistent.
  • Passive Voice. This can be difficult to spot, because it’s sometimes very subtle. For example, the difference between “someone shot at me”, and “I was shot at”. (I think you’ll agree that the second phrase is a little stronger than the first.)
  • Dialogue layout. I open a new paragraph as each character speaks; I find that makes it easier to follow who’s saying what. (I’ve read books in which the different characters’ lines are all mashed together into a single paragraph. It’s horrible, and hard to read.)
  • Again, in dialogue, I rip out superfluous uses of “he said, she said” and similar. Most times, you know who’s talking. If there’s a potential for confusion, especially in a long conversation, I’ll add something every half dozen paragraphs or so to make it clear who’s doing the talking.

And of course I’ll spot errors of other kinds as I’m going through. Dialogue in which it’s not clear who’s speaking. Characters acting or talking in ways that aren’t in line with their personalities (that can be harder to fix). And sometimes entire scenes that come across as so wrong that the only thing to do is tear them down and rewrite them. It happens.

When I’ve finished editing the last scene, I put the whole thing to one side for a bit—maybe a week, maybe a month—and then . . . I do it again. And I can guarantee you that I’ll spot a whole herd of obvious, glaring errors that I didn’t spot the first time round. Errors that are so in-yer-face that it’s hard to believe I could possibly have missed them earlier. And yet, there they are. And then I do it again, and I find a bunch more mistakes. AND THIS NEVER ENDS. I think I could go through it a hundred times and still find mistakes. Eventually there comes a point where I just have to say “good enough” and stop. And of course, bear in mind that the book will still be going to a professional editor, and she’ll spot things I missed, too.

Another thing I do is write a synopsis. I usually do this after the first or second editing pass. Basically I skim each scene and note what happens, in the form of a single sentence. The result is similar to the one-paragraph-per-scene timeline, but there are a couple of important differences:

  • I have one sentence per scene, and I put the sentences together so that I have one paragraph per chapter*.
  • I’m actually working from the draft text, not the original timeline; that’s important because during the writing, what I actually end up writing very often drifts away from the timeline description a little bit because a new idea comes to me as I’m writing.

(*At this point a chapter is just a file containing around 2,500 words. Whether the final book’s chapters line up with this or not is irrelevant—it’s just a convenient size when it comes to editing. The final book might not even have chapters; for example The Artemis Device is in the form of a series of scenes with no other divisions.)

Having a synopsis is valuable, because many agents and publishers will ask for one as part of the query/submission process. If you’ve created one as part of your process, you won’t have to put one together in a rush later when you suddenly find you need one. But building the synopsis is priceless, for a couple of reasons:

  • You get back to a high level view of your story’s structure, and that in itself can help you spot problems that you might not notice otherwise. For example, while I was writing a synopsis recently, I found that I had a character recovering in bed after being attacked—and then, just a couple of scenes later (in terms of time, a matter of a couple of hours), he’s up and about in a different part of the city. Oops! When I checked the timeline I found I’d missed an entire scene in which he decides he has to go after his assailant despite his injuries. Somehow I’d skipped over it.
  • As I’m writing each sentence to describe each scene, I sometimes come across scenes for which adding a sentence to the synopsis seems like padding. When that happens I can ask myself, is this scene really needed? If I rip it out, does the story suffer? If the scene doesn’t have a function—if it doesn’t drive the story forward or explain something about a character, it can probably be removed.

When do you stop editing? I guess, when it’s time to submit your work to an agent or publisher. And so, in the next and quite possibly last post in this series, I’m going to get into that a little bit.

Until next time . . .

The Windows 10 Experience, Redux

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NOW that I’ve had a few weeks to play with it, here’s a short update on some things I’ve found with Windows 10.

What’s Good

IN general, I haven’t found any problems with any of the applications I use frequently. Microsoft Word, Scrivener, PaintShop Pro, and so on, all work just fine. Google Chrome’s been having a few problems but I think those are bugs in Chrome itself and not related to the OS.

What’s Bad

I’M continuing to have problems related to device drivers and antivirus:

  • The touch pad driver no longer has the setting to disable the pad when a USB mouse is plugged in, which is annoying and inconvenient. Hoping for a driver update that’ll fix that, but so far nothing.
  • There’s a problem with the screen driver that causes an error message to pop up when I switch from mains to battery power. Again, hoping for an update that’ll fix that.
  • Despite the report that told me all the laptop hardware is compatible, it turns out that the driver for the CD/DVD drive is out of date, and because it’s an older device Sony aren’t likely to release an updated driver for Win10. Which means the drive is unusable. I might be able to fix that if I can find a newer drive that will fit. This is particularly annoying, since Microsoft said it would work.
  • Certain commonly-used antivirus programs cause problems that stop Windows Update working (it sticks at 0% when “preparing to install updates”). I googled the details and found dozens of “fixes”, all different, all suspect. I the end I called Microsoft’s Denver office and talked to tech support, and they were able to help. They advised running SFC with the /scannow option; it didn’t report any errors, but after a reboot the update worked. So at least if it happens again I know what to try first.

Writing Process #5: Writing It

FOLLOWING on from the previous post . . .

I’ve got my story in timeline form (the spreadsheet), and I’m happy with it. Is there anything else I need to do?

There probably is. It’s almost certain that there are small things I do as part of my process that I’ve neglected to mention up to this point (when I have time I’ll go back and update the earlier posts to add those other things in as I think of them).

One thing I know I forgot to address is Point of View. I usually decide pretty early on which PoV I want to write in, and in fact the way I do my spreadsheet depends on that decision. I colour-code each scene (usually green) depending on whose PoV that scene will be written from. If I’ve decided to write the story in first person, that means that all the green scenes will be in the one column corresponding to the character telling the entire story. That doesn’t necessarily make the colour codes redundant, because there might be “scenes” in my timeline in which something happens, but I don’t want to include it as an actual scene in the written story. For example, maybe this is something that gets referred to later in a flashback, say. (Not that I use flashbacks, but I’m not going to avoid using them just because some people say they’re bad; if I find a place where a flashback works better than other options I can think of, I’ll use one. Not that that’s ever happened, but it might. But I digress.)

More often, I write in third-person, and each scene is told from one character’s perspective. I prefer third person—it means I can write scenes from pretty much any character’s perspective, including an antagonist’s, so I can create dramatic irony by using that character’s PoV to reveal to the reader stuff that other characters don’t know (Fred is pounding up the stairs to get to the tenth floor in a hurry, but we know something that he doesn’t—Charlie is waiting on the ninth, and he’s got a very sharp axe). As part of building the spreadsheet, I decide who gets the PoV for each scene. Mostly it’s obvious, but often there’ll be a scene with two or more major characters in it, and it can sometimes be hard to decide which of them gets to tell the story for that scene.

Another thing I didn’t mention is that sometimes—in fact, pretty often, if I’m being honest—I might “lose” a handful of scenes at the very beginning and the very end of the timeline. I don’t delete them; I just change them from green to grey, to indicate that these scenes lead into the real action at the beginning, and aren’t necessary at the end. Trimming like this can be important, especially at the start of the story; you need to get to your inciting incident, the thing that kicks things off, but you often need to give your readers something to set the scene before you get to the real action. Balancing how much lead-in you should have can be tricky, and it can be easy to write more than the story really needs. I try to err on the cautious side; if in doubt, I’ll leave the questionable scenes in place, and then later I (or my editor) can see if they detract or slow things down too much, and I can chop out the fat.

Enough of that. Back to where I started: I have the timeline, and I’m ready to begin the process of putting words on paper (well, on my laptop screen, but you get the point). Where do I begin?

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You don’t have to write the scenes in the order they’ll be read (at least, assuming your readers start reading at page one). It’s your process; do what works for you. I’ve heard of people who start at the last scene and work forward. I know of one writer who saves up the “fun” scenes—the ones he thinks will be the most fun to write—for last, so that writing those will be a reward for getting through the rest of it (in his words, looking forward to writing those gives him more motivation to write the other scenes).

Personally, I begin at the beginning—the first scene in the timeline. To me it just seems logical to do it that way, and one big plus is that it helps me keep the continuity straight. (I’ve screwed up continuity in the past; for example, in one book I wrote, I did some shuffling of scenes on the timeline and ended up with a character showing up in a scene after she’d already died in an earlier scene. Oops. One more reason to do as much as possible get the timeline right before starting the actual writing.)

Here’s what I do. I look at the one-paragraph description of the scene I’m about to write. I take it in, mull it over, and think about how it’s going to be worded. This thinkage is something I find easier to do when I have a few minutes of quiet time—in the car on the way to the store, maybe, or on the way to or from work.

I think about where the scene is going to take place. In some cases the description doesn’t say because it’s not important, so I can pretty much pick anywhere that makes sense for the story. In other cases the description does say where it happens, but not in detail. As an example, it might happen at the zoo, so I have to decide where exactly—I might decide it’s going to take place by the lion cage, or in the insect house.

I think about the ambience of the setting. Outside? What’s the weather like? Inside? Is it all brightly lit by sunshine through big windows, or dim and smoky, or maybe shafts of sunlight cut through the dusty air like in a Ridley Scott movie. Is it hot, or cold? What sounds are there, what smells?

And of course I think about what’s going to happen in the scene, just as the one-paragraph description says. How is it going to happen? Which characters are involved? What are they going to say to each other? (That leads to thoughts about the actual dialogue. If I think up some dialogue that I like a lot, I’ll find some way to record it—scribble it on paper, use a voice recorder, tap it into Google Keep on my phone; but I’ve learned from experience not to trust to memory.) Is there going to be some fighting going on? If so, I think about the moves (I’ll come back to this).

How long I spend thinking about all this for a single scene varies quite a bit. Sometimes, for a simple scene, I might have it straight in my head in twenty minutes. For a complex scene I might think about it for four or five hours spread over a couple of days. It all depends.

Once I have it all figured out, I can write the scene. Here are a few guidelines I try to follow:

  • Description: two or three short phrases is usually plenty. Give only the details that are important; let your reader’s imagination fill in the rest. A tall, grey-haired man in a black suit entered the library, his metal-rimmed spectacles reflecting the gaslight as he turned to stand in front of the fire.
  • Get straight to the point. If you need to set the scene, do it quick and get on with the action.
  • You generally don’t need the little details. Two characters sit down and talk over tea. That’s all you need to say. You don’t need to point out when they pour tea, add sugar, stir, sip. Unless the way they do it says something about their personalities, or is important to the story in some way. Jack held the sugar spoon above the cup, and watched the second hand on the clock. When it hit thirteen, he dumped the sugar in quickly, and stirred.
  • Similarly, you can do without the body language for the most part. Nodding and shaking of heads, shrugging, things of that nature, can all be left out. On the other hand, sometimes a little body language can say something better than words. Fred’s eyes went wide at the sight. (Check out a really handy book called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)
  • Fights and other fast action: keep things moving. Bernie throws a haymaker at John. John ducks, and punches Bernie in the groin. Bernie doubles over as John straightens quickly and brings his knee up into Bernie’s face. You get the idea. The thing is, just saying they fight isn’t enough. You need pulse-pounding action in bite-sized chunks, shot at your reader in short, controlled, machine-gun bursts.

. . . and possibly the most important points:

  • Don’t worry about screwing up on the first stab at a scene. Fear of writing the wrong thing is real, and it’ll stop you in your tracks if you let it. So don’t let it. Remember, no-one will see what you’ve written until you’re ready for them to see it, so you can edit and polish and edit and polish and take as many runs at it as you need to get it into shape.
  • You can’t correct a blank page. You can fix a scene that’s not working for you.

. . . and with those in mind, I start writing. Pretty much guaranteed, the first sentence will be junk. That’s ok. Everything is fixable, but I make a point of not fixing anything until I’ve got the scene down. Sometimes I come up with new ideas as I’m writing that aren’t quite in line with the original description of the scene but, in a kind of Eureka moment, are better than what I was originally going to do. I put those in, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes—just so long as it’s not going to mean rewriting the timeline (or at least, if it only means minor changes to fit it in), that’s fine too.

And I write until the scene is done, and I don’t look back at what I’ve written as I go; that’ll kill what momentum I have faster than cold water on a dynamite fuse. I know there will be mistakes. When the scene’s done I go back over what I’ve written and fix any glaring errors—missed words, spelling and grammar mistakes, other minor stuff. That junky first sentence? I might fix that, too, if I a better alternative comes to me (it often does, once I have the rest of the scene in place to give it more context).

Then . . . on with the next scene. Think it through, get it all in my head, then write it. Rinse and repeat.

One thing that tends to suffer a little bit here is that because I essentially stop between scenes, it can be hard to maintain momentum. Some people would have a problem with that. I have a problem with that—but I’ve found that if I happen to build up that kind of momentum (it just happens, or it doesn’t; it’s not something I can control), and let it flow, let myself carry on into the next scene and the next without worrying about it, I sometimes end up writing something that is possibly better than what I’d have written with my usual planning steps. Or not. Or maybe about the same. The thing is, when it happens I let it happen, and see where it carries me. When I come back to it later, if I don’t like it, I can always change it just by going back to my usual, plodding, planned method.

Like I said, think and write, rinse and repeat, one scene at a time. Given that I have limited time because of the day job, it usually takes me somewhere around twelve weeks to get a full-length book of, say, 90,000 words written from beginning to end.

But at the end of that twelve weeks I have a first draft. And the first time you do that, you get that realisation that WOW, I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK! It’s not ready to publish yet, but the whole story is there. Break out the bubbly and take a break, for in the next episode I’ll be coming to the next job: editing.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #4: A Bit of Character

THIS post should really have come a bit sooner. I mentioned in an earlier post (#2, I think) that I begin to develop my characters in parallel with developing the story, as I expand it from a few paragraphs to a full scene-by-scene description. But I didn’t go into detail, and I should have. So let me put that right before I go too much further.

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This is what I said: “Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other.” And I said a little bit about how I build up my characters as I’m building the story. So let me expand on that.

Character Drives Story

ALAN—our protagonist—is walking home from the pub with his friend Bert. On the way they encounter a couple of other guys. Bert’s had a bit too much to drink, and says something that one of these other guys takes offence at. Tension. There’s a fight coming. What happens next?

That all depends on Alan’s character. He might be scared of getting hurt and just step back out of harm’s way. Or he might say something to try to defuse the situation. Or he might square his shoulders and step up beside Bert to warn the other guys off. Or he might be a bit handy with his fists and relish the idea of a bit of rough and tumble. Or he might be torn between running away, and risking lost teeth to help his friend.

What happens next, then, depends on Alan’s character. Character drives the story, decides which direction things go. So it’s important to know your characters. If you don’t know Alan, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you can’t write the scene.

One way to get to know Alan is to work out his back story. So I might say to myself something like, Alan grew up in a small town and he didn’t see a lot of violence, apart from a couple of lads who tended to bully some of the other kids. Once, one of them punched Alan and threw him into a pond, and Alan’s been scared of getting into fights ever since. And so on. I could figure out an entire history for Alan (and since he’s my protagonist, I certainly should do that in some detail), and that will help me get to know who he is and how he’ll react in a given situation.

Another thing I need to know about a character is their motivations. Back story can give you a lot of that, but I also try to think about two particular aspects:

  • What the character wants
  • What the character needs

These can be two very different things. The character will be aware of what they want, but they might not recognise what they really need. When the wants and needs are in some kind of opposition, conflict ensues. That makes for an interesting story. For example: Vernon wants the winning lottery ticket that’s being blown away by the wind, but running after it means leaving his friend William hanging from the flagpole on the side of the skyscraper—and he needs William’s friendship. He’s torn between going after the ticket, and helping William back to safety.

Story Drives Character

CHARACTERS that don’t change aren’t as interesting as ones that do. Your main characters should be changed in some way by the voyage between the beginning and the end. The story needs to punch them in the gut, open their eyes, teach them something about the world or about themselves or about something they love. And as part of planning your story, you need to plan how the story is going to affect your characters.

I have to admit that I used to be a bit vague on how I did that in my earlier writing. I didn’t really have a method for it, and I tended to just let the story happen and do whatever it did to the characters. But just letting the story push the characters around isn’t very satisfying. The characters need reasons to push back, to force their own stories the way they want them to go (and of course when different characters try to push the story in different directions you get more conflict, and your story is better for it). By having a more focused method, you gain a lot more control over how you get your characters to grow.

What I do these days is based on something I found in Chuck Wendig’s excellent book, The Kick-Ass Writer. It’s the idea of the character arc, which put simply is a way to describe your character’s changes as three keywords representing how they are at the beginning, middle, and end of their own path. For example, Denial to Doubt to Acceptance, or Timid to Pressured to Confident. Keeping the descriptions short and to the point—single keywords in those examples—makes it easier to keep them in mind as you develop your characters over the course of the story. And that in turn will help make the scenes work better, because the characters will act in ways consistent with their personalities and the arcs you want them to follow.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #3: Review the Scenes

BEFORE I go further, I have to mention that these posts describe my own particular writing process, the one that works for me.

A lot of books about writing fiction will tell you that everyone has their own process that works for them, and that what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for another. But I think it’s fair to say that, in the broad strokes at least, you’ll find that many of them are similar. If what I’m describing works for you, mostly, then that’s great. As it is, my process is based on writing processes that other writers have described, with some tweaks to make it fit the way I think, the way I like to develop stories, the way I like to write. And as you, gentle reader, work on your own stories, you’ll no doubt develop your own process that you’re comfortable with.

That said, on with the show . . .

Following on from the previous post, at this point I have a set of paragraphs, each a self-contained description of a scene. I don’t include anything that isn’t relevant to the story—for example, I don’t bother to say what the characters are wearing, or where the scene takes place, unless it’s important. If you read these paragraphs in order, you’ll get the whole story from beginning to end, and it should make sense. You should even be able to give it to someone else to read, and it should make sense to them, too. (And if it doesn’t, they should be able to tell you why.)

What form does this set of scenes take? That’s up to you. You could just write them in a notebook, if you want to. But you probably want something a little more flexible. I tend to use a spreadsheet on my computer (specifically, I use Google Sheets—that way I can access it from my laptop, or a tablet, or my phone in a pinch). I know of people who use index cards pinned on a big board. The point is, you want something that lets you move the scenes around.

You see, the next step of my process involves going back through all the scenes, and doing a couple of things as I do.

First and foremost, I’m organising the scenes into a Timeline. This is a spreadsheet page where each row represents a point in time (which can be as specific as the story demands—”1pm Thursday” for example, or “Winter”) and there’s a column for each character. Depending on the point of view I’ve decided to write the story in (third person limited, say), I colour-code each cell to highlight whose point of view the action will be written from for that scene. At the same time I fill in the other cells in the same row to tell me where the other characters are at that same time—that’s great for spotting some silly mistakes, like where Fred is in London while one scene is taking place but then he’s in Glasgow in the following scene, which takes place only minutes later. It also helps me spot action that I currently have marked as happening behind the scenes, as it were, but that might actually be better done as an actual scene in its own right. (And I often spot scenes that I intended to include in the story, that are actually better off happening off-screen and maybe mentioned in passing later.)

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As I build up the timeline, I’m looking for opportunities to add conflicts and obstacles to drop into the way of the protagonists. As you read back a scene, ask yourself, What can I do to make things tougher? My detective is driving like hell to get to the slaughterhouse where the evil janitor is about to chop up his next victim. What can I do to make things tougher? I know: it’s snowing hard and he can’t see the road in the dark. And . . . he hits a patch of ice and runs off the road, and totals the car. Yes! And he gets out of the car and he’s all cut up and dazed and, MUAHAHAHA, he hears the yelping of coyotes nearby. And then . . . well, you get the idea. Put your characters right behind the eight ball. Make them bleed. Then, if you like, let them dig themselves out of the hole at the last minute. But one thing to watch here is, make sure your characters act according to the rules you’ve set for them. Remember their wants, needs, motivations, and the kinds of people they are, and how you want them to change as the story progresses (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post), and make sure their actions fit.

Another thing I’m looking for is places where I read a scene and I get a feeling that somehow it doesn’t deliver—that it’s just flat, somehow. It’s hard to define, exactly. When I see scenes like that, and I get that feeling, the first question I ask myself is, Is this scene needed? If I delete it, does the rest of the story make sense? The answer to those questions determines how I deal with it, which might mean rewriting the one-paragraph description to beef things up, or trashing it altogether.

One more thing I’m doing is making sure that things flow nicely. That’s particularly important if the story has places where two or three things are happening in parallel—for example, I have a set of scenes where John is breaking into the tool shed to find the stolen Spanner of Justice, while in a separate set of scenes taking place at the same time, Janice is in her car, chasing The Mad Professor and trying to delay him getting to the same tool shed so that John has more time. So I have to make sure that as I switch viewpoint from John to Janice and back, it all makes sense in terms of the order that things happen. So I might need to change the order of the scenes a little to get that right.

Yet one more thing I’m doing is evaluating the peril and tension. I assign a number, usually from zero to five, to each scene. Some people like to assign one number for peril and another for tension; I usually find that they end up being pretty much the same most of the time, so I generally just use one number. If you’re using a spreadsheet, as I do, you can dedicate a column for that and then create a chart showing how the tension goes up and down as the story progresses. Getting a graphical display of this is priceless. What you’re looking for is a line that starts low and gradually climbs, in fits and starts, to a peak at the climax, near the end of the story, then drops in the denouement. If things climb, then drop to long flat spots, you should be thinking about how to get that tension up. You might need to rethink those scenes to add more cowbell, or combine things into one scene where the boringness can be swiped over quickly, or consider just plain tearing the slow scenes out. Whatever works.

And when I’ve been through the scenes from beginning to end, I put it all to one side for a couple of days. And then I do it again. And again.

I can easily spend a month or more doing this, until I reach a point where I really like what I have and I don’t want to change it any more. Once I’m at that point, I’m ready to start the actual writing. I’ll come to that in a future post, coming soon to a screen near you.

Until next time . . .