Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Self-Editing a Book is Like Navigating a River

A few weeks ago I wrote about a simple memory jogging acronym I use when self-editing my work.

S—Sentence Structure
E—Eliminating Errors: Spelling, Capitalization, Punctuation, POV
D—Dialogue and Description
I—Internal and External Conflict
T—Typos, Tired Words, and Tense Changes
I—Inaccurate Facts and Inconsistencies
N—Narrative and Backstory


Today I'm addressing language and flow.

When I edit my own work -- or when I'm editing another writer's work --  I look at the story as if I'm exploring an unknown river. 
Despite the occasional bend or curve in a riverbed, all rivers flow in one direction only. Just like a river, the plot of a story should flow in one logical direction from start to finish. And if there's a subplot in the story, it should branch off from the main plot in the same way that a creek branches off from a river; a creek may veer off in a slightly different direction--maybe southeast instead of due south--but it's still part and parcel of the main waterway.   

Rivers--and the fish in them--often twist and turn as they travel across the landscape. Are there a sufficient number of twists, turns, and red herrings in the story to keep the reader guessing? 

How about obstacles? Rocks, fallen trees, and other debris can change the course of a river or alter the rate of its flow. Are there enough reasonable obstacles thrown in the path of the protagonist to keep the story interesting? Do these obstacles slow the pace of the plot or, hopefully, increase both the pace and the tension?

Last but not least, all rivers have boundaries of some kind. Be they rocky walls or grassy banks, they contain in place the water flowing between them. Sometimes, though, a river overflows its boundaries, causing damage to anything in its path with a flood of water.
Language is to a story what water is to a river. The right words--and the right number of words--can make the plot flow at a pace that encourages a reader to keep turning the pages. The trick is staying within the boundaries. What I mean by that is, you can damage, or even destroy, a good story by using the wrong words, too many words, or too many of the same words in your writing. 

So what's a wrong word? Dull verbs come to mind right away. People "running" or "stopping" instead of "fleeing" or "skidding to a stop". And don't get me started on "was" and "had" and "came" and "went". 

Too many words? Well, we've all written those 100,000 word Greatest Novels and discovered we'd be much better off if we cut out at least 25,000 little beauties. Sometimes we simply can't resist flooding our first drafts with words, but there's nothing like wordiness to slow the pace and cool the tension in a story. Cut out unnecessary scenes, tag lines, adjectives, and adverbs. Cut to the chase and you'll tell a better story.

As for too many of the same words, we all have our favorites that seem to creep into every other paragraph. "Just" is one of my favorites; I'm ruthless at cutting out "just" when I self-edit my work. Making a list of your favorite words and doing a word count of them in your manuscript helps when it comes to deleting overused and hackneyed words.

Self-editing isn't easy, but it's a necessary evil that must be learned by every writer who hopes to succeed in this business. Using the above acronym has helped me with my writing. I hope it will help you, too.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Lessons From the Lone Ranger

Here's a story that speaks to the need for self-editing. 

The Lone Ranger and Tonto went camping in the desert. After raising their tent, the two men crawled into it and fell asleep.

Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, "Kemo Sabe, look up and tell me what you see."

The Lone Ranger replies, "I see the sky, and in it, thousands of stars."

"What does that tell you?" asks Tonto.

The Lone Ranger ponders the question for a minute and then says, "Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, it says the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, we'll probably have a beautiful day. What does it tell you, Tonto?"

Tonto rolls his eyes in disgust. "It tells me someone stole our tent!"

Tom Stern at defines homing in as getting to the crux of a problem. In the story above, the Lone Ranger failed to home in on the real problem because he concentrated only on what he saw and not on what he didn't see.

We writers often do the same thing when we self-edit our work. We are so familiar with our stories, and can so readily visualize our settings and characters, that we often read what we think we wrote rather than what we did write. 

So even though Aunt Anna has always lived in North Dakota (it says so on page eight of our novel), our hero ends up on Interstate 90 when he's driving to her home.  With one slip of the finger, we changed I-94 to I-90 and sent Aunt Agatha -- or was it Anna? -- to South Dakota. 

For me, one of the best ways to avoid unintentional errors is by setting my work aside for a few weeks after finishing it. Once I have the story pretty well out of my mind, I can go back and read it over with a fresh eye for mistakes or inconsistencies. Doing it this way, I've found I can catch most errors before my readers do.

So what's your secret for catching mistakes in your writing? Are you Tonto or the Lone Ranger when it comes to self-editing your work?