Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Distance and Lists in the Editing Process

Teeth and Bones Editing Contest:

~
How to enter: Comment on the Novel Matters blog anytime between Monday, September 6th, and Friday September 17th. At the bottom of your comment type TABEC (short for Teeth and Bones Editing Contest). Only comments with these letters at the bottom will be eligible to win (we understand that not all our readers are interested in this level of editing, but would still want to be free to comment and discuss editing - that's the reason we require interested people to please use the TABEC letters at the bottom of their comments). You many enter as many times as you like over the two weeks. Each comment counts as an entry (but don't forget to type TABEC at the bottom of each comment).
~
Winner: One winner will be announced on Friday, September 17th at 5:00 PM pacific time.
~
The prize: A teeth and bones edit of your first chapter and synopsis by Bonnie Grove. The edit will be on the substantive level (the overall concepts, characters, and themes, etc. of the novel). It will be Bonnie's teeth on the bones of your manuscript.
~
The winner will work one on one with Bonnie Grove via e-mail. The winner will consent to having the first paragraph of the work posted on Novel Matters in a before and after comparison. This means the winner will agree to have the first paragraph of your WIP appear on the blog, first as it was originally written, then in its edited form.
~

Hemingway once said in an interview that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. Asked what the problem was, he said, "Getting the words right."
~
Editing is all about getting the words right, but it's one of the more difficult aspects of being a writer. Our words mean a lot to us. After all, we put a good deal of thought into our word choices, as well as the meaning that lies behind them. As we write we can carry on our love affair with all those words. But after the writing comes the reality, where we give the most objective look we can to the work itself, free of the emotion that goes into the creation. That's where distance can be our strongest ally. By the time I finished writing Every Good & Perfect Gift I was saturated with the story, and wondered who in their right mind would want to read it. Because, as I wrote the book, instead of starting my writing session close to where I left off, I would read much of what I'd written the day, or week, before, as though I needed a running jump to get back in the story. It was one step forward, five steps back.
~
It's unlikely you'll write a novel without looking back to some degree, but the way I was doing it was overkill. Before I could begin the editing process I needed some distance between myself and the manuscript. I had the luxury of time (code for "not under contract"), so I put it aside and went to work on my next project. Later, when I was ready to revise, I started with a fresh eye.
~
Sol Stein (Stein on Writing) says, "The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. The writer ... looks forward to the opportunity of excising words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters that do not work and to improving those that do." Well, I'd say looks forward to is a stretch, but I do know that editing is a vital part of the process. Jim Scott Bell, in his own inimitable style, says, "Rewriting is what separates the real pros from the wannabes. I don't wannabe a wannabe. I wannabe a pro" (Plot & Structure). And so I pick up my red pen and go to work.
~
Let's assume we've completed our substantive edits--so we're not polishing poop, as Bonnie so eloquently said--and now we're onto more specific edits. This is where we cut and/or replace. Following is a partial list of editing points I follow as I revise:
  • Cut superfluous words, phrases, sentences--things that get in the way of the story. Use a machete.
  • Replace words, phrases, sentences with the right words, phrases, sentences (ala Hemingway).
  • No cliches! And there are way more than you think.
  • Get rid of italics, even for internal dialogue in many cases. Get. Rid. Of. Them.
  • Look for repetitious words and make one of them leave. For good.
  • Passive voice should be gotten rid of.
  • Any word or phrase I trip over is likely a word or phrase my reader will trip over. And that's a lawsuit waiting to happen.
  • Know the rules before you break the rules. Okay, that one's just dumb. But you can look very bad if you break rules by accident. Break rules on purpose and you'll come across like Jodi Picoult. Not that she breaks rules, but wouldn't you like to be compared to her? Well now you can.
  • Eliminate adjectives and adverbs that modify nouns and verbs that aren't doing their jobs--the adj's and adv's are merely crutches. Mark Twain said, "If you find an adjective, kill it!" And if they're on crutches it should be a piece of cake. Really, though, I don't want to get in trouble with the law or anything; just wanna write really good books.
  • Look for "ing" phrases that I all too often begin sentences with (i.e., following my list, I eliminate "ing" phrases because I don't wannabe a wannabe).
  • "Eliminate dialogue tags where possible," she said.
  • She tapped her red pen on her chin. "Replace with action tags."
  • Get out my list of qualifiers and intensifiers, then Search and Destroy the following (think Hunt for Red October): a bit, a little, absolutely, actually, basically, completely, extremely, just, kind of, mostly, naturally, often, ordinarily, particularly, perfectly, pretty (as an adverb), probably, quite, rather, really, so, some, somehow, somewhat, too, totally, truly, usually, very (not an exhaustive list--it just feels like it).
  • When you come across an exclamation point, whack off the top. Make the writing strong enough to stand on the remaining dot.
  • Find and replace "have got" in any form. No exceptions!
  • Redline the redundant. The list in the Appendix of Write Tight is absolutely essential to this.
~
These are some of the things I look for when I revise. (And I've had some fun sharing them with you.) They're not hard and fast rules, but guidelines. For example, I don't automatically, in every situation, delete an exclamation point as I'm editing, but I do stop to see if it's there because of weak writing. Same with some of the words in my qualifiers and intensifiers list. They may have a purpose, may help define a character for example. But again, when I come across one of those words in a search, I evaluate its purpose for being there. What editing points can you add to the list? Which points of mine would you eliminate?

41 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Saving this.

Excellent points. Because of an awesome person I've already put some dents in my novels with these editing suggestions.

Thank you.
~ Wendy

Terri Tiffany said...

Wonderful list!! I try to go through most of these myself. I found that I wasn't using italics and then an editor suggested using them at times with an inner thought --so I'm confused there.

TABEC

Emma Connolly said...

Just when I think it's finished, it's not. I have spent the past two months raking over a ms. I think it is the best it can be. Then I begin again and see those repetitious words I missed in that 7th go round. And why do I fall into passive voice, as if my brain goes on automatic pilot and and the passive prognosticators take over? Thanks, Novel Matters, for these important reminders.
TABEC

Debra E. Marvin said...

Ooh. Painful. The italics, too?
What about words that the POV says to themselves but not out loud? What about prayer?

Regina J. said...

I'm printing that list and taping it to the desk. Grateful for the anti-italic comment (sounds like you don't like Italians). Italics are distracting.

Now I need to go back and take the -ings out of printing and taping.

-Regina
TABEC

Ruth Ann Dell said...

Thanks for this terrific list.

This rule was liked by me "Passive voice should be gotten rid of."

TABEC

Steena Holmes said...

Thank you! That made it look so easy - I'm a list person so this helps!!!
TABEC

Sharon K. Souza said...

Terri, if you're writing in first person or even close third person, italics are absolutely not necessary for internal dialogue because we're already in the POV character's head. We know when we're thinking their thoughts. "I thought" or "she thought" aren't necessary either, in those cases. But the whole thing is so subjective! Often it depends on your editor and their house rules, so to speak. But the more we do to unclutter the look of a page, the better.

Marcia said...

Sharon, two weeks ago I'd have been surprised by a point or two of your advice(such as getting rid of italics and exclamation marks).

In the meantime, however, I finished reading "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" (Browne and King). They echo everything you said.

Thanks for the reminder.

--Marcia

TABEC

Sharon K. Souza said...

Wendy, ; )

Marcia, thanks for the confirmation. I keep hearing about that book. I need to order it.

Bonnie Grove said...

Great list, Sharon. I laughed a couple of times - You're on top of your wittiest game today!

About action tags vs. dialogue tags: I agree action tags are more interesting reading, but we need to ensure we're using them creatively and correctly. Action tags should say something about the character, move the plot, or deepen the meaning of the scene. They should not be neutral, dull action simply because we wish to employ an action tag.

When we use action tags incorrectly we end up with a novel filled with twitching, nodding, nail biting, blinking, leaning, floppy jawed characters who jerk and spazz, and their way through the story.

As you can see, I'm sharpening my editing teeth this week. We'll announce the winner this Friday.
I have to say, writers, Marcia stands at 9 entries! Are you going to take that sitting down?

Nichole Osborn said...

Great list. I will be saving this one. Very helpful. Thanks.

TABEC

Nicole Zoltack said...

Wonderful list. I'm going to print this out. Thanks!

TABEC

gargimehra said...

Great list, thanks for this.
TABEC

Ellen Staley said...

Very informative list. Hmmm, no italics. I have to admit my favorite authors use them often. Guess when I rewrite, I'll save them for the One Who Is.

TABEC

vonildawrites said...

But I LIKE -ing words and the occasional adjective.

Voni Harris

TABEC

vonildawrites said...

(I was merely whining in the last post, but my didn't show up.) :)

Voni
TABEC

Marcia said...

Since it's a new concept to me, I couldn't remember the reason why I shouldn't use an “ing” word at the beginning of my sentences. So I looked it up just now in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.”

Browne & King say on p. 193, “One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers, namely:

“Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.” and: “As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.”


Both the “as” construction and the “-ing” construction as used above are grammatically correct and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action and tuck it away into a dependent clause. This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. If you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the “as” and “-ing” constructions is that they give rise to physical impossibilities. We once worked on the autobiography of a behavioral biologist who, in the process of describing her field work, wrote, “Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh jeans.” The “-ing” construction forced simultaneity on two actions that can't be simultaneous. The doctor didn't duck into the tent and pull on clean pants at the same time—she was a biologist, not a contortionist.

We are not suggesting that you avoid these phrases altogether. There are going to be times when you want to write about two actions that are actually simultaneous and/or genuinely incidental—actions that deserve no more than a dependent clause. And given the choice between an “as” or “-ing” construction and a belabored, artificial alternative, you're well advised to use the as or -ing. But be aware that hacks have long ago run these useful constructions into the ground. Learn to spot them in your own writing and, if you see more than one or two on a page, start hunting around for alternatives.

For instance, “Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him” could easily be changed to “She pulled off her gloves and turned to face him” or even, “She pulled off her gloves, turned to face him.” Or you can make an -ing phrase less conspicuous by moving it to the middle of the sentence rather than the beginning, where it seems particularly amateurish.”

--Marcia

TABEC

Marcia said...

Since it's a new concept to me, I couldn't remember the reason why I shouldn't use an “ing” word at the beginning of my sentences. So I looked it up just now in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.”

Browne & King say on p. 193, “One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers, namely:

“Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.” and: “As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.”


Both the “as” construction and the “-ing” construction as used above are grammatically correct and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action and tuck it away into a dependent clause. This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. If you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the “as” and “-ing” constructions is that they give rise to physical impossibilities. We once worked on the autobiography of a behavioral biologist who, in the process of describing her field work, wrote, “Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh jeans.” The “-ing” construction forced simultaneity on two actions that can't be simultaneous. The doctor didn't duck into the tent and pull on clean pants at the same time—she was a biologist, not a contortionist.

We are not suggesting that you avoid these phrases altogether. There are going to be times when you want to write about two actions that are actually simultaneous and/or genuinely incidental—actions that deserve no more than a dependent clause. And given the choice between an “as” or “-ing” construction and a belabored, artificial alternative, you're well advised to use the as or -ing. But be aware that hacks have long ago run these useful constructions into the ground. Learn to spot them in your own writing and, if you see more than one or two on a page, start hunting around for alternatives.

For instance, “Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him” could easily be changed to “She pulled off her gloves and turned to face him” or even, “She pulled off her gloves, turned to face him.” Or you can make an -ing phrase less conspicuous by moving it to the middle of the sentence rather than the beginning, where it seems particularly amateurish.”

--Marcia

TABEC

Marcia said...

Oops, I didn't mean to post that last one twice. The prompt asked me if I really wanted to navigate away from the page and I clicked "cancel" --and that was the result. Weird.

Anyway, I've got to go do some more work on my synopsis. It would be embarrassing to win and not be ready!

--Marcia

P.S. My dear husband is praying I'll win this contest. Could he be tired of me harping about publishing a novel for 30 years? That's probably longer than some of you have been alive :-)

TABEC

Marian said...

Thanks for this list. These Teeth and Bones postings are helping me immensely.

TABEC

Lynn Dean said...

Love your code for "not under contract" and Bonnie's "polishing poop."

When I set a story aside and then read it again, I'm surprised to notice themes that I didn't consciously weave in. I wonder if they grow organically out of our mindset while we're writing? It's fun to find them, though, and bring them out.

Thanks for an excellent editing list. This will go in my notebook!

TABEC

Ellen Staley said...

I'm excited. I have a one page and a three page synopsis finished. And of course my bulky twelve pager, the first attempt. Looking forward to applying the list of hints to my rewrites.

Excellent site! Found you through Tosca Lee I believe.

TABEC

Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen: We adore Tosca. She's fun, laid back, and genuinely nice - in addition to writing wonderful novels.

Sharon K. Souza said...

I've been gone all day and come back to some great comments. Bonnie, sharpen away! You're absolutely right about action tags. We don't use them merely to keep from using dialogue tags. And adjectives are wonderful. I love adjectives. Just have to be careful how I use them. And using the surprising adjective instead of the expected adjective gives us all the excuse we need to use them guilt free.

Karen Schravemade said...

Sharon, I like that... "the surprising adjective instead of the expected adjective". Something to ponder on today.

TABEC

P.S. Go, Marcia!!

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon I love the list too! It's so good having all the "rules" together in front of you.

I did a short writing course recently, and the tutor suggested the following technique for searching out unneccessary qualifiers:

1. In MS Word go to the edit menu and scroll down to "find" (or ctrl F)
2. Type in ly (letter l, letter y, followed by a space)
3. press enter

It'll then show you all the really, probably, totally, amazingly and actually unneccessary words.

I was pretty impressed. Makes things heaps easier to find, especially in a big manuscript.

TABEC

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Thanks for the helpful list, Sharon. It's been useful to me as I work my way through revisions and editing. I tend to use the exclamation point often and put too much of the internal dialogue in italics. This blog has become the one that I turn to for dependable writing guidance. Thanks to all for sharing their expertise.

TABEC

J said...

Thanks for the great tips. Do you think an author can adequately edit his or her own work? Don't you think an objective pair of editing eyes is needed for a substantial work? Thanks, Joan TABEC

Sharon K. Souza said...

Megan, that's good advice. Thanks for sharing.

Pat, we're very happy to hear that. We always enjoy your comments.

J, It's always good to have an honest, knowledgeable critique partner. It's hard for most of us to be as objective as need to be.

Karen Schravemade said...

Hey, Megan, great idea. I'm totally, absolutely going to use it :)

TABEC

Pippa Jay said...

Thank you for this list. I've printed it out and pinned it up on my wall for reference!
TABEC

Michelle said...

I've stumbled upon this a little late, but what the heck, I'll give a go.

It is a handy list to have though, thank you! I'm horrible with adjectives and -ing words.

TABEC

Kirk K said...

I have a difficult time with the "distance" part of anything I write so I will fall into the trap of editing as I write, which can be disastrous as well as a complete waste of the little time I actually have to write.

I appreciate a refresher on the "guidelines". I think it's easy, especially for pre-published writers, to fall in the trap of thinking this list is full of hard and fast "rules".

TABEC

Samantha Bennett said...

Bookmarking this post for future edits. Thorough and funny. A winning combo.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Thank you, Samantha. Thank you all for your terrific comments.

Megan Sayer said...

Come on...Wake UP, America...
on THIS side of the Pacific it's 5:00 already...!

groupofseven said...

Excellent list. Thank you.

TABAC

vonildawrites said...

I saw the title of this entry again, and had a thought. It's very cool to have a list. That'll help take the editing decisions out of the emotional realm. "Sorry, adverb. You're on the list. See ya!" Or at the very least, it forces you to give a reason why you're breaking the rule.

Voni

TABEC

Nikole Hahn said...

Action tags...so true. And good point. I just thought of a few non-action tags in my novel now. I've got my red pen ready.

Linda said...

This sounds like a winning book all around, not just for writing books. Would love to win it. Please enter me.
desertrose5173 at gmail dot com