Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 5: Editing Process

Writers frequently talk about their writing process. Editing needs a process too. In the early stages, some call it “rewriting,” reserving the term “editing” for polishing prose and correcting errors.

At first, I had no editing process; I simply read my manuscript, starting at the beginning (again and again), and tweaked in an unstructured way, fixing typos in paragraphs I would end up deleting next time around. Then I joined a critique group and had to figure out how to deal efficiently with feedback from other writers in a way that would improve my work-in-progress.

Eventually, I worked out a process. I can see progress from one session to the next, which wasn’t the case when I was just flailing around. Even more important, I know when I’m finished. Now I find editing much less demanding than the brain-to-text process of the first (or “proto”) draft.

Some writers prefer to print their manuscripts for editing. I actually dislike printing, but I do find it useful to make a copy of the document and mark it up with different colours and notes to myself.

Sometimes, I’ve found, editing is not so much a matter of adding or deleting stuff, as re-ordering it.

I’m always surprised by how much text I move around early in the editing process. Sentences and paragraphs — even entire scenes — go in different directions and end up far from where they started. Some paragraphs get taken apart and the parts moved to different places. Is my thinking that disordered at the first draft stage?

Actually, yes. At that point, I’m intent on turning ideas into words and getting them down. I don’t revisit what I’ve written until the whole thing is finished and typed up with a word processor, which is when I start editing. In the hurly-burly of writing the proto-draft, it’s not surprising that I often overlook the optimal order of occurrence. (Look at all those o’s!)

Order of occurrence is important, not only for physical events but for characters’ thoughts and emotions. Something has to happen before a character reacts to it. Sometimes, story elements that belong together get separated and must be reunited, unless they’re really two instances of the same thing, in which case one of them should be deleted.

Because of what I think of as “word count anxiety,” I crank out a lot of words at the proto-draft stage, so I have to lots to delete at the editing stage. When it comes to sentences or whole paragraphs, I sometimes edge up to deletion by first highlighting the problematic text and adding a note, in all caps so it’s hard to miss: IS THIS NECESSARY? (See image above.) When I revisit that spot later, I move the highlighted stuff to the bottom of the document. If what’s left works without it, I blow that material away or put it into a separate “Deleted Stuff” file. (Torture your darlings before you kill ’em. Or put ’em in jail so you can torture them later.)

I make several passes through the manuscript, targetting specific problems. First I look for plot problems and order of occurrence issues. Then repeated material. Then the list of my personal problem words. I work from big issues to niggly details, leaving the final check for typos, omitted periods, quotation marks, and question marks to the VERY END.

A sad truth is that many small errors are introduced during the editing process. That’s why it’s best to deal with the fiddly stuff (typos, extra spaces, missing punctuation marks) AFTER operations that involve adding, moving, or deleting chunks of text. To borrow a simile from woodworking, there’s no point in polishing something that still needs to be shaped or sanded.

I suggest following something like the following steps, in this order:

  • Structural stuff: deleting or adding scenes, moving paragraphs and sentences
  • Continuity stuff: finding and fixing plot holes and inconsistencies with names, physical characteristics, and similar details.
  • Polishing the prose: finding and fixing clunkiness, repetitions, awkward phrases, sub-optimal words, etc.
  • Finding and fixing grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and typos
  • Final detailed proofreading, paragraph by paragraph, starting at the end and working backwards. (That forces you to see the words and punctuation marks, rather than reading the story.)

Some of my first manuscripts were created before I trained myself not to follow periods with two spaces, and before I started using proper em-dashes. Word’s Find and Replace function is great for hunting these out and fixing them.

In fact, the Find function can be really helpful when searching for many of the infuriating small errors that hide until after a book has been published, and leap out cackling wickedly as the happy author is perusing their newborn. Author and blogger Virginia S. Anderson has compiled detailed tips and suggestions for using Find in several posts, the first of which can be found HERE.

The only word I always search for is “that.” It’s amazing how often it can be removed without harming anything. I wouldn’t do a global search and delete, however; sometimes “that” is just what you need. And each of my works has had its own set of “pet” words, like “glow,” “mutter,” “forces,” or “ultimate.” They’re useful, but are also memorable enough to annoy readers if they turn up too frequently.

Fellow writers, what is your editing process? Methodical or improvised? Do you enjoy editing or think of it as torture?

Next time: Don’t Forget to Justify!

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 4: Reasons to Write and Reasons to Publish

Now that so many writers are also publishers (of their own writings), publishing seems like a natural outcome of writing. First you write, and then (after a few other operations) you publish. A no-brainer, right?

No. Writing and publishing are two completely different actions. While many pieces of text are written in order to be published as soon as possible, many others are not.

Reasons to Write

  • Inspiration: you can’t not write
  • Declaration: a statement you must make
  • Exploration: you want to see if you can write
  • Reminiscing: capturing the past for yourself or others
  • Figuring Out: solving a problem by putting it into words
  • Revelation: truth-telling
  • Explanation: recording knowledge

Reasons to Publish

  • To share ideas
  • To amuse and delight
  • To reveal something to the world
  • To test your ideas
  • To test your writing
  • To make money
  • To become famous

We write for personal reasons. We publish to share our writings with the world.

It stands to reason that we write more than we publish. We scribble down notes and ideas. We write multiple drafts and versions, we have false starts that go nowhere, we abandon pieces half-written when inspiration runs out. We write for practice, or to solidify ideas. We write out of frustration or rage or grief. Many of these writings are never intended to be published.

Writing notebook

Writing does not equal publishing, no matter how easy it is to publish.

Freedom of thought is fundamental. No thought is forbidden, but not all thoughts need to be put into words and published. Any thought may be written, but some are best followed by shredding, burning, or deletion, rather than publication.

Then there are all those “rules” we keep reading about — never do this, always do that, don’t use these words, etc. Rules don’t matter if you’re writing with no intention to publish. Worrying about rules can hobble the mind and fetter the fingers. Beginning writers may think they must master the rules before they write anything, which likely means they won’t write at all. Forming thoughts into words can be freeing, healing, or motivating. No one should stifle the impulse to write because they haven’t learned the rules.

But before a piece of writing is published, it must be readable. That’s the time for attention to rules. If the words are to be out in the world and read by others, the writer must ensure they are effective vehicles for the thoughts they embody.

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Fellow writers, do you always know when you write something that you will publish it? Do you ever write things you will never publish? Or regretted publishing something?

Next time: Editing process.

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 3: Writing From the Inside or the Outside?

There’s a lot of advice for writers on how to structure a piece of fiction from inciting incident to crisis and conclusion. How to create conflict and build up tension. How to make relatable characters. To me, that advice often sounds like the writer is looking at their work from the outside, standing apart from it, assembling pieces and fastening them together.

I prefer to write from the inside.

It’s like I’m creating the structure from within and living in it with my characters. I’m right there with them as they interact, experiencing their conflicts and struggles. It’s like making a burrow, digging into the substance of the story and shaping its hollows and passages with my hands and body.

Looking out of hollow space
Image by Juanetito from Pixabay

Writing from the inside is writing in first person or using what’s called “deep POV.” That is an extremely close third person point of view, just one remove from first person. The narrator doesn’t speak as one of the characters, but is pretty much joined at the hip with them, close enough to hear their inner thoughts. It’s as though that character, the writer, and the reader are one. A drawback of this device is that other characters’ thoughts must be conveyed in dialogue or by some other means.

This inside/outside thing reminds me of Emic vs Etic — a concept in anthropology that distinguishes between ways of describing a culture. An outside observer’s account (“etic”) is scientifically detached but possibly coloured by his or her own culture. That written by a member of the culture (“emic”), while richer and more detailed, may be obscured by assumptions not available to all readers. For example: “The group demonstrates an animistic religion,” vs. “I honour the spirits of sky, water, and stone.”

I won’t say that one approach is better than the other, but working from the inside feels right to me. All my novels and many of my short stories are in first person. Of the fourteen stories in Tales from the Annexe, nine are in first person. Those with a third person point of view are, in my opinion, a bit less intense and immersive.

With my eyes useless, I explored my darkness. Like a trapped insect, I crawled inside the walls of my skull, revisiting memories of sight. … I remembered the weight of the glass cylinder filled with the drug, the small resistance as the needle punctured living tissue, the faint grating of glass on glass as I dispensed death.
(From “The Night Journey of Francis Dexter”)

Writing from the outside may be the preferred method for writers who do detailed outlines and other preliminary work before they begin to write. Working from the inside may be favoured by those who plunge in and splash out a messy first draft with the intent to shape it later, in effect writing first from the inside and then from the outside. And maybe those who start from the outside need to do some work from the inside after they’ve created the framework.

Image source unknown

Or maybe it’s about Thinking (inside) and Doing (outside). Introspective works may be best served by first person or extremely close third person. For action-packed thrillers, close third person may be effective, possibly switching between or among characters. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, with its intricate plots and many characters, demands third person omniscient. And first person or deep POV may be used for specific scenes to add intensity.

Whichever approach a writer takes, it’s helpful to do it consciously and methodically, so as to maximize the impact and avoid confusing the reader.

All this reminds me of something I read about how beavers build their lodges. First they pile up a huge mass of sticks, and then burrow inside it to shape their living spaces from within. Then they plaster the outside with mud to make it weathertight. There is something beaverish about us writers, isn’t there?

Beaver lodge
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you distinguish between writing from the inside and the outside? Which approach works best for you?

Next time: Reasons to Write and Reasons to Publish

Tales from the Annexe: Reviews and Free Download

Tales from the Annexe has some good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. And Berthold Gambrel has written a blog post with a thorough and detailed review. Read it here.

And since today, November 7th, is Herbert West’s birthday (20th or 134th, depending), Tales from the Annexe is available free on Amazon. Today only, until midnight Pacific Standard Time.

AMAZON: US UK CA AU 

Words related to writing

Writers Talking About Writing

Ever wonder what indie authors talk about? Now you can listen to a conversation among three of them. (Thanks to Berthold Gambrel for steering the Zoom bus!)

KingMidget's Ramblings

Berthold Gambrel and I can’t be Two Guys Talking About Writing anymore because we’ve been joined by the fabulous Audrey Driscoll from north of the border. In this chat, we discuss how we came to writing and decided to publish our efforts. We try to provide some advice as well. Hope you enjoy it, and yes, we continue to look for more of you to join the conversation.

(A side note about my background. I’m an empty nester now, with both boys off on their own. I’m in the process of transitioning one of their rooms into my “office.” On the list of things to do is to eventually paint the walls — which are covered with various things his friends painted on those walls around seven or eight years ago. The room is still very much a representation of my younger son.)

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Drift log on rocks and windblown trees Cox Bay

To the West Again

In mid-October we spent nearly a week near Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This visit was originally scheduled for March, but we postponed it when everything shut down.

Small Amanita muscaria mushrooms near the pond with Hosta leaves in background
I said goodbye to the garden and these cute mushrooms and headed west!

The autumn weather was a delightful mix of mist, fog, a bit of drizzle, a little rain, and a couple of glorious sunny days. Perfect for walking on sandy beaches, exploring sea-worn rocks, and immersive forest bathing.

Nelly en route to Tofino, Oct. 2020
Nelly the Newfoundland en route; I couldn’t resist getting a photo with this sign, since people often say she looks like a bear.

I’ve realized that trying to take pictures during a walk often spoils the walk. I’m too taken up finding good picture opportunities to appreciate the overall scene. So I took almost no photos until the last full day of our stay, when I raced around some photogenic rock formations near where we were staying. The combination of mussel- and barnacle-encrusted bedrock, rounded boulders, smooth sand, eroding mussel shells, and plants making their living on the edge was irresistible.

Tide pool Cox Bay mussels and barnacles October 2020
Stone, sand, mussels, and barnacles
Tide pool sea anemones, mussels, and barnacles Cox Bay October 2020
A gang of sea anemones
Black basalt boulder Cox Bay October 2020
A big basalt boulder looking like a Work of Art
Surge channel Cox Bay
A narrow surge channel going up into the trees
Mussel shells Cox Bay
Mussel shells. There are small beaches of “sand” made of pulverized shells, which are also used as path surfacing in places.
Mussel shells and beach grass Cox Bay
Shells and beach grass
Maianthemum dilatatum and withered grass Cox Bay
Beach grass, false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum), and (maybe) some sort of sedge
View between rock masses Cox Bay
An intriguing gap at low tide
Wave-worn rock and finely ground shells Cox Bay
Bedrock worn smooth, pulverized shells, and the water that did the job
Wild strawberry plants growing on rocks Cox Bay
Wild strawberry plants rooted in cracks in the rock
Water-worn boulders and bedrock Cox Bay
Bedrock, boulders, and sand

And here are three phone photos from a coastal rainforest boardwalk loop trail in Pacific Rim National Park. It’s one of my favourites (although Nelly the Newfoundland wasn’t too keen on all the stairs!)

Coastal rainforest with woodpecker tree
Towering cedars and firs, with a dead trunk thoroughly bored by woodpeckers.
Big Boletus mushroom and Deer Fern (Struthiopteris spicant)
A great big Boletus mushroom among Deer Ferns (Struthiopteris spicant). (Apologies for the fuzziness of the photo.)
Yellow heart-shaped leaf of Maianthemum dilatatum and cedar trunk
Yellow leaf of false lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum dilatatum)

I love Tofino!

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 2: The Proto-Draft

That pile of paper in the featured image is the original manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals.

When I began writing my first novel in 2000, pen on paper was the logical medium. I did not know if I could create anything worthwhile or if I would soon abandon the project. Besides, it just felt right. Until the 20th century, all books were written with pens scraping along on paper. (Okay, I didn’t use a quill pen.)

Even now, I write my first drafts by hand, but those drafts are getting sketchier, especially for short stories. They’re somewhere between outlines and fully realized drafts. Sort of like really detailed outlines, with occasional fully realized scenes or pieces of dialogue.

I think of those handwritten starts as proto-drafts. They are the first organized manifestations in words of the ideas and mental images behind my fictional works.

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
A novel disguised as two inches of scribbled-upon paper.

The objective of a first draft is to get the whole narrative down in words, even if some of it is left skeletal, a framework or scaffolding. I supply detail and finalize the plot as I type the thing into a word processor. With that document complete, the real work begins. The words are legible and I can cut, copy, apply colours, search, replace, and delete.

But the handwritten proto-draft is an essential part of my writing process. Here’s why:

  • A page of scribble is less intimidating than crisp words on a white screen. If I’m not sure about a new story or novel, or if I’m trying some sort of new technique, I don’t want the half-baked thing glaring back at me looking stupid.
  • The first thing I see when I go back to the new writing project is the spot where I left off, rather than the first paragraph. I can slip back into the story immediately, instead of thrashing my way through the beginning.
  • I can avoid the distractions of the internet.
  • I can write almost anywhere–outdoors, on the bus, or in the bathtub (as long as I can keep the paper dry).
  • It’s more complicated to shred or burn a paper draft than to hit the delete key with vindictive glee if I decide the work is crap. I can stuff it into a box or drawer–or even the recycle bin–where it will be safe until the fit has passed. (I wonder how many great works may have perished when open fires were used to heat writers’ rooms.)
  • I don’t have to worry about losing any work to a computer malfunction or power failure. Fire and water are the only immediate concerns. Or leaving the manuscript on a bus or in a coffee shop–theoretical possibilities only, since I don’t actually write in such places now. (I always shudder when I think of how T.E. Lawrence lost the ms. of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train.)
  • If anyone accuses me of plagiarism, I have proof that I wrote every word myself, along with crossings-out, circled paragraphs with arrows, and sentences squeezed in along the margins.

When the longhand draft is complete, I put it away for a week or a month. Then I go back and start on the real first draft, by transcribing the handwritten text into a Word document, changing, omitting, and adding as needed.

First page of the handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
The beginning of TFOM. I must have written this on November 7th, 2000.

The longhand draft is sort of like a compost heap, only better organized. It’s a big pile of words I can work with to refine the raw material into a completed work.

Copy of The Friendship of Mortals ("big" version)
The final product.

For me, the toughest part of writing a piece of fiction is the process of embodying concepts with words or solidifying imaginings into prose–the raw act of creation. The sooner I can get that done, the better, and the proto-draft helps.

If writing by hand on paper is out of the question, a writer can still do a proto-draft. Control + End takes the cursor to the end of the document. Then it’s just a matter of writing like there’s no tomorrow until THE END.

Fellow writers, how do you create your first drafts? Longhand, word processor, detailed notes, sketchy outlines? How do you bridge the gap between ideas in your head and words on page or screen?

Next time: Writing from the Inside or the Outside?

Asters "Pink Cloud" and "Monch" with a few last flowers of Rose Campion

Autumn Asters and Fall Fungi

I heard something recently about the two words used for this time of year (in the northern hemisphere). It’s the only season with two words to describe it. “Fall” is most commonly used in North America and “autumn” in Britain.

“Fall” is a one-syllable word that does the job of indicating the time of year when a lot of leaves hit the ground. Okay, there’s the additonal implication of failure and downgoing, as in the Fall of the Roman Empire. But think of “fall fair”–prize vegetables, flowers, and livestock. Deep-fried things to eat. Bales of hay. Fiddle music. Fall is fine.

“Autumn” sounds poetic and nostalgic. It actually works better in written form, at least in North America. People from the Old World, with suitable accents, can get away with using it in conversation, but for most of us it sounds hoity-toity and uber-refined. And of course it has that silent “n,” which adds a certain mystique.

I generally say “fall,” but sometimes I write “autumn.”

However you describe it, October is THE month. It’s not really cold, days have not yet been cut brutally short by the return to Standard Time (for which the mnemonic is “Fall back”), and the leaves are in a state of glory before they (yes, sadly) fall.

maple leaves, orange leaves, yellow leaves
Aster frikartii "Monch"
Asters are the thing to see in the garden right now. This is Aster frikartii “Monch”
Late-blooming purple aster (variety unknown)
These asters (variety unknown) don’t start blooming until October, and are sometimes flattened by early wind and rain storms.
Boletus mushroom October 2020
Mushrooms sprouted when warm days followed a week of rain. This is some sort of Boletus, probably edible. I didn’t nibble it, but something else did.
Amanita muscaria button
Amanita muscaria button. Cute, but definitely not edible.
Amanita muscaria mushroom
A week later, it’s all grown up, looking a bit out of place among hardy cyclamen flowers.
Allium christophii seed head
Another Covid-19 lookalike, otherwise known as a seed head of Allium christiophii
Fallen maple leaves and Geranium "Anne Folkard" October 2011
More beauty in decline–flowers of Geranium “Ann Folkard,” fading foliage, and fallen leaves.
Yellow rose; photo taken from living room window
What may be the last rose of the year; photo taken from a window.
Orb-weaver spider and web
Orb-weaver spider. They’re still with us…

I hope everyone is having a fabulous fall. Or an amazing autumn.

And a splendid spring to those in the southern hemisphere!

#BadMoonRising Tales From the Annexe – 7 Stories From the Herbert West Series by Audrey Driscoll #horror #occult #shortstories

I’m on Teri Polen’s Bad Moon Rising event for today, holding forth on creepy matters.

Books and Such

Some readers aren’t quite prepared to jump into novel-length horror, but they can handle the torture scares in shorter spurts. Today’s featured book of short stories checks off that box. Read on to find out which chilling book has stuck with this author since the age of twelve. Welcome Audrey Driscoll!

Would you rather sleep in a coffin for one night or spend the night in a haunted house?

A nice new, padded coffin in a coffin showroom would be okay, as long as the lid was left open. If it had to be closed, or if the coffin had been previously occupied, I might just go for the haunted house. On the other hand, spending time in a closed coffin might be a useful experience for writing a horror story.

Has a movie or book scared you so much you couldn’t sleep? Which one?

Yes, terribly! When I was…

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