Month: September 2012

Back to the Comma Bucket: the Perils of Hasty Editing

A while ago I bemoaned the loss of a lot of edits when I copied an old version of a file over the new one instead of the other way around. Having to do all that editing over again meant that I did it at lightning speed, creating fresh new errors in the process. A few days ago I decided to have a quick read of Hunting the Phoenix, the ebook that was the object of all this editing, and discovered a few embarrassing mistakes — “was been” (from changing things like “had been” to “was”), missing words and punctuation and other instances of sloppy deletion.

So I turned my quick read into a slow one, finding and correcting perhaps a dozen of these small but irritating errors and picking off dozens of superfluous commas at the same time. Editing has been on my mind for a while, so this was a useful exercise in more ways than one.

Writers are constantly advised to hone their craft. Part of the honing process is learning how to edit. Yes, you can hire someone to do that, but it’s an essential writerly skill. Even if you choose not to edit your own writing, you can perhaps help someone else with theirs. (Just here I’ll throw out an observation that as far as I know there is no accrediting body for editors, so you can’t be sure that the person you hire is any better than you).

The order in which you do different kinds of editing is important. Don’t bother with line editing right after you’ve finished your first draft. Not even your second, third or fourth draft. Save it until you’re happy with the structure of your novel — the plot, the characters, the pacing, the way the scenes unfold. At that point it’s worthwhile to focus on grammar, punctuation, superfluous words and other niceties.

Now, after several more hours of intense and focussed work, I’m fairly sure I’ve corrected my errors without making new ones. The comma bucket is overflowing and I’m about to re-upload my Phoenix to fly unburdened into e-readers and imaginations.

Hooks, Tics and Tension

When I read a work in progress presented for critique, I am a different sort of reader than when I read a completed book for entertainment. As a critiquer, I am looking for things to critique — awkward dialogue, improbable situations, confusing structure and so on. As a regular reader, I’m not consciously looking for anything, just going with the flow of the narrative wherever it takes me. Only if that flow is interrupted or destroyed do I notice the actual writing, and even then I don’t think about it much but simply stop reading.

If a piece of writing is effective, the casual reader doesn’t have to think about it, any more than someone luxuriating in a hot tub has to think about the plumbing. Most writers I know, myself included, write for that ideal reader, making the narrative flow easily to help them create a mind-movie.

But before there’s a casual reader, there are non-casual ones, aren’t there? Fellow writers in critique groups, test readers, and (if the work becomes a submission), publishers’ readers or editors. They resist being carried along. The first two are on the lookout for bumps or snags, and the gatekeepers are looking for reasons to throw the manuscript onto the “rejects” pile and move on to the next one.

I touched on tics a few posts ago, when I mentioned a recommendation to target the word “that,” removing as many instances of it as possible because in many cases it is redundant and slows down the flow. I have read similar suggestions about other words: only, just, still, some, had (as in the much-maligned past perfect) and was. The trouble is that if you read with the target word in mind, that word is all you see; the piece of writing becomes otherwise meaningless. It’s sort of like the dripping tap or the ticking clock — once the sound has claimed your attention, it’s all you can hear. The best way to look for any of these suspect words would be with the Find feature in Word, which lets you hop from one instance of a word to the next and decide whether it’s needed. But if you are doing a general read-through, don’t focus on a specific word.

So much for tics.  How about hooks? Writers are told that to keep a reader’s interest they must “plant a hook” at the beginning of a novel and at the end of every chapter until the work bristles with them, like a longline fishing setup from which a reader cannot possibly escape. The trouble is that not every type of writing lends itself to the hook-planting technique. Quite often a bridge or a winding path is more appropriate, or an alluring vista in the distance. I suspect the whole hook business comes from readers who must get through dozens or hundreds of submissions from the slush pile. To keep them interested, hooks are absolutely essential — no hook, no luck.  Many casual readers, I think, don’t need hooks everywhere, only writing that’s easy to read (in the sense of “flow”), punctuated with instances of greater intensity (action, tension, sex or transcendence) at regular intervals. These may be called hooks, I suppose, but in that case we may need a different term for devices that generate readers’ interest.

Finally, tension. At a recent critiquing session, I was told that one of my scenes lacked tension. I made things too easy for my characters and they needed to experience more difficulties. Well, OK, maybe so. Rewriting, I added a few obstacles and disconcerting moments. I’m aware of the advice to “Torture your characters. Make life really hard for them, because that’s what makes a good read.” Indeed, but like any other fictional devices, the obstacles must be plausible and contribute to the plot. Traps set for their own sake may well snap down on the writer if they lengthen the story too much or create a lot of pointless detours.

What’s this post about, really? Partially it’s me venting my annoyance at the suggestion that a piece of my writing is flaccid. More justifiably, it’s me questioning another set of Rules for Writers. Show me a rule and I’m inclined to quibble with it. Creative writing isn’t something you can do by slavishly following a set of rules, like a paint-by-number. Come to think of it, visual artists don’t seem to bother much with rules any more. It’s true that some artists are more successful than others, but that’s true for us writers too. We make our choices and take the consequences depending on our individual situations. If I had a publisher’s team behind me, investing their time and treasure in marketing my work, I would have a real incentive to follow whatever rules they came up with. But I don’t, so I can write things like the foregoing with impunity (I hope).

Revivifying a Rose

Years ago, I grew a plant of the rose “Fragant Cloud” from a cutting. Grown on its own roots, rather than grafted onto a vigorous rootstock, it was always rather a feeble plant, but managed to bloom modestly most years, even when plagued by black spot. It went into last winter looking pretty bad, probably because of the ferocious maple and Ailanthus roots that have turned my garden into a challenging site for all but the toughest plants.

This spring, the poor thing put out some new leaves, which were promptly chomped by the visiting buck. They didn’t even have a chance to develop black spot. Deciding that Something Must Be Done, I dug it up and planted it into good soil in a big pot I happened to have on hand. I rather botched the digging up business, leaving very few roots on the unfortunate rose plant. It sat there for weeks looking skeletal, and I gave it only a fifty per cent chance of survival. About midsummer, I was happily surprised to see new growth — nice dark green leaves without a trace of black spot. It grew several new stems, each with 3 or 4 buds. A dozen buds in all, more than this plant had ever managed, even at its former best. Now it’s in full bloom, perfuming the late summer air and providing a small splash of lushness in the generally desiccated scene here, after nearly two rainless months.

Sometimes things work out better than expected.

Too Many Writers Talking About Writing?

Lately it seems that a lot of “indie” writers have found the time to accuse one another of filling the internet with badly written, unedited crap. There are huge numbers of bloggers (like me!) holding forth on the topic and endless forums in which opinions are fired off like artillery barrages. People are trashing each other right and left. You can tell how heated the discussions are by the number of typos made by the flying fingers of the indignant.

I can say one thing — reading these chains of heated opinions is addictive. I’ve spent (wasted?) several hours today doing that. Just think of all the original, creative writing everyone involved in these discussions could have done instead. But would anyone have read that writing? Hmm.

It’s a no-win argument, really, saying that certain people just shouldn’t write — or publish — because their writing is bad, because they haven’t had it “professionally” edited, because they haven’t “honed” their craft, etc. Of course anyone who wants to can write and publish, and no one has to read their work unless they want to. As for filling up the internet, I wouldn’t worry — text takes up far less space than all those cute puppy videos.

I do have a couple of pet theories about the indie writer scene. One of them is that wannabe writers are an enormous and growing market — for editing services, cover design services, book doctoring and marketing and conferences. As boomers retire and discover a book inside of them that simply must be delivered to the world, there will be more and more entrepreneurs eager to help them — for a fee. And that’s a Good Thing, isn’t it? But to create and maintain the market, writers have to be convinced that their writing cannot possibly be good enough without the professional touch.

And why do so many people want to be writers? Simple — they think it’s a quick and easy route to some kind of celebrity. Most of us have neither the looks nor the ability to be a movie actor or an athlete (and for those of us who are boomers, or even “zoomers,” it’s too late anyway), but hey! we can sit in front of our computers and forge our life experiences, humorous thoughts and emotional ups and downs into prose. A few drafts later, we upload and next thing you know someone from the local media is asking us where we get our ideas and telling us how interesting it is that we turned our tropical cruises into a murder mystery.

Has this happened to me? No. I’m just using my imagination, so it doesn’t become atrophied. Because ever since I began publishing (as opposed to writing) the books of my Herbert West Trilogy, I haven’t actually written much of anything. I hope that will change this fall, but if I allow myself to get drawn into the morass of writing about writing, it probably never will.