On Writing: Clean Up Your Mess

One of the biggest problems writers have is editing their work. It’s difficult to see awkward phrases, sentences, even paragraphs since we know what we want to say and so believe we have said it, though readers might have difficulty trying to figure it out. The best way to find such ambiguities is to ask someone to read your book (someone other than me, that is) and have them mark any passages that make them pause or that jerk them out of the fictive dream.

cleanOther edits, though, are less subjective, and writers should be able to find and correct the errors themselves. The most common non-subjective problem I see in even the most polished works are wrongly used participial phrases that end in ing. According to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, “a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.”

The example in the book is: Walking down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children. Who is walking? He is, of course, since he is the subject of the sentence, and the ing phrase always refers to the subject. If the woman is walking, you have to rephrase the sentence: He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking down the road. You, I’m sure, would never have to worry about who is walking because you’d never use such an ambiguous sentence in the first place!

The other examples of wrong participial phrases Strunk and White give are humorous and show why it’s important to follow the rule:

Being in dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house cheap.
Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
As a mother of five, with another on the way, the ironing board was always up.

In case you don’t know how to rephrase the above sentences to make them grammatical and remove the silliness (the first sentence, for example, says that you were able to buy the house cheap because you were in a dilapidated condition), here are my quick efforts:

Because of the dilapidated condition of the house, I was able to buy the place cheap.
As I wondered what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
A mother of five, with another on the way, I was never able to put the ironing board away.

Another ing problem comes from simultaneous actions, when an author has a character do something that’s physically impossible. For example: Pulling out of the driveway, he drove down the street. He cannot be pulling out of the driveway at the same time he is driving down the street. He pulled out of the driveway, then drove down the street.

Such sentence structures do slip into our writing, no matter how careful we are. It’s up to us to clean up the mess and make it easy for readers to stay riveted in our stories. (This is primarily a post about “ing”s, which is good since I seem to be reverting to clichés. That, I know, is something you never do.)

Authors often shrug off the necessity for self-editing because either they believe they have the right to write however they please, or they leave the work to their editors, but the truth is, it is up to authors to get their manuscripts as clean and clear as possible before self-publishing or submitting their book to an editor. As someone who has edited one heck of a lot of manuscripts, I can tell you that having to point out the same error page after page after page gets tiresome.

So, do what you were taught as a child — clean up your own mess.

See also:
Grammar Guide for Self-Editing
Self-Editing — The List From Hell
The Editor’s Blog — A Remarkable Resource for All Writers

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

How do you give readers the background information they need?

All my books seem to have a character like Teach, my learned con man from Daughter Am I, who tends to be a lecturer. The hardest part of editing that particular book was to take out everything that wasn’t essential to understanding the story. I worry that Teach’s talk about the history of gold is a bit much, but there is no way to understand why the gold was buried without understanding the history of the era. I did try to space the information to add a bit of suspense at times or to offer a respite from the action at other times.

For Light Bringer, I had to present various conspiracy theories, and instead of having a character like Teach to “teach” the theories, I created a discussion group, each member of which believed a different theory and vociferously defended it while denigrating what the others believed. It was a fun way to present the information without an extended information dump.

Here are some responses from other authors about giving readers the background information they need. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Donna Galanti, Author of “A Human Element”

I try to tease them with only a few descriptive details of backstory and setting as I go along. Give them only what they need at the time. Readers want to feel smart. They like to fill in the blanks, as long as there aren’t too many blanks. I try and look at all backstory and gauge if it serves the story. If it doesn’t out it goes. By introducing questions early on with giving just enough information to keep the story going, we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and…build suspense. Hopefully!

From an interview with Sam Lopez, author of “Dead Sea”

Disputes between characters can provide helpful information but if there is no conflict, then sometimes you just have to spell out what needs saying.

What about you? How do you deal with exposition and give readers the background information they need?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire http://patbertram.wordpress.com/author-questionnaire/ and follow the instruction.)

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What to Do When You’ve Finished Writing Your Book

Someone asked me what to do once they have completed their book and gone over it and fixed everything that needed to be fixed.

The first thing you do is celebrate. You’ve accomplished something wonderful!

After that, what I suggest (and what I do) is let the book lie fallow for six weeks or so, then go over it one more time, looking at every single sentence, every bit of dialogue, checking to make sure each is important to the story and are the very best sentences possible. This is especially important with dialogue. In real life, we often can’t think of the perfect thing to say until the opportunity is long past, but ochampagneur characters don’t have to be so tongue-tied. We have hours — days — to come up with the perfect response for them to make.

Since you’ve spent so much time on the book, you know what you are trying to prove. For example, in a mystery, you are often trying to prove that someone is a killer, has a good motive, but deserves to get caught by your hero; in a romance, that the two main characters belong together. Go through the book and remove all stray commentary and side stories that do not show who your characters are and do not help prove whatever it is you are trying to prove.

If you are a first-time novelist, get rid of your first chapter. When people start out writing a book, they tell much about the characters at the beginning under the assumption that readers need all that information to understand the story. They don’t. I bet you will find that everything in the first chapter shows up later in the story when it’s important for the reader to have that particular bit. If not, you can always add a sentence or two at the proper moment. By deleting that first, probably redundant chapter, it puts readers right smack dab in the middle of the action and makes them a part of the story.

Next, even if you aren’t a first-time novelist, go through the book and get rid of your weakest scene. This will make your story tighter and more powerful.

Then read the story aloud, paying attention flow, bad grammar, typos, anything that makes you (or the person you are reading to if you managed to corner someone) pause or that pulls you out of the story. Make those changes.

Now you are ready to decide what you want to do. Self-publish? Find an agent? Submit to small independent presses? If you want to self-publish, sorry, I can’t help. I don’t have any interest in such matters, and so never bothered to figure out how to do it.

If you want to try for an agent or a publisher, learn how to write query letters. That’s your basic tool for getting them interested in your work. Then search for agents and publishers and pay attention to their requirements. Don’t send more (or less) than they ask. Preditors and Editors is a good place to start, as is Association of Authors’ Representatives.

When your book is published, however it happens, I bet you think you can finally relax now that the hard part is behind you. Wrong! Now the even harder part of promotion begins.

Best of luck, whatever you decide to do.

See also:

Grammar Guide for Self-Editing
Self-Editing — The List From Hell
How to Write a Query Letter
What Works When It Comes to Book Promotion?

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Drowning in a Sea of “It”s

I’ve started going through my poor old work-in-pause. (The manuscript has been neglected so long, I can’t in all honesty say the work is in progress.) At first, I only intended to read what I’d written to plant myself in the story so I could figure out what my hero does next, but I’m appalled by the bad writing. Actually, the writing is okay, but the work is in dire need of editing. And no wonder — I wrote these chapters five years ago, long before I learned how to edit.

The worst problem I find is a copious use of pronouns, especially “it.” “It” serves only to tell a reader that the writer couldn’t be bothered to figure out a better way of saying “it,” so the writer used the placeholder word in the hopes that readers would be prescient enough to understand what “it” meant. To many “it”s make writing seem vague, because . . . well, because “it” is vague. For example:

“She’s my mother. I can’t just throw her out.” He hefted the bag of dry cat food, then paused, arrested by the image of himself pushing Isabel out the door of his apartment. As tempting as it might be, he couldn’t do it. When he was a child, she’d worked two jobs to support him, and he owed her.

I’m not sure how to replace the “it”s without causing echoes by repeating words such as “mother” and phrases such as “throw her out,” but the “it”s slapped me in the face when I was reading that passage, and that is never a good sign.

From the very next page: A chime intruded into Chet’s thoughts. It took a second for him to recognize it as the bell over the door. He seldom heard it so clearly; usually the clamor of the birds and animals drowned it out.

And this from a few pages later: He heaved his computer off the dresser top where he’d been storing it, lugged it to his office, and set it on the desk. He turned it on, ordered the lemon drops, then pulled up his plans for the refuge.

Yikes. I feel as if I’m drowning in a sea of “it”s. Maybe by the time I edit these chapters and find concrete words to replace all the “it”s, I’ll be so deeply involved in the story, I’ll have no trouble segueing into writer mode. Despite being infected by a bad case of ititis, the story deserves more than to be packed away as a work-in-pause for five more years.

Consistency is No Hobgoblin When it Comes to Writing

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Most people leave off the word “foolish” when they quote this sentence by Ralph Waldo Emerson, leading us to believe that any consistency is the sign of a little mind, and interestingly, that is exactly what Emerson said.

Here is the entire passage: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Despite Emerson’s condemnation of consistency, the truth is, foolish or not, consistency is an attribute of a good writer. Readers will forgive a writer almost anything except inconsistencies that interrupt the flow of the story.

I once started to read a book where a man spirited away the Shah of Iran. According to the author, the Shah lived fifteen years beyond his supposed death in 1980. The operation was so secret and successful that no one knew about it. But . . . It took only this one very high profile achievement to assure a solid client base for the man. Supposedly, word travels quickly in the very elite circles of power, and so the demand for the man’s services was always in excess of his ability to produce.

What?????? If no one knew that the Shah survived his death, how could word travel? And if word did travel, how could high profile clients remain “dead,” especially since most of them were hiding from those in the elite circles of power? The inconsistency took me out of the story, and I never did finish reading the book.

It’s almost impossible to keep inconsistencies from slipping into a story, which is why self-editing, though vital, cannot be the final editing process. We writers see consistency because we see what we meant to say. Others only see the inconsistency. I am grateful to one of my editors for finding a blatant inconsistency in Daughter Am I. The editor wrote, “It’s not clear here whether or not Mary completely removed her shirt. If she did, when she stood up and ran to the bathroom, then turned around and had the conversation with Tim, she’d have been completely topless. Given their feelings for each other, and their state of undress, it seems unlikely they would have been able to have such a lengthy conversation without biology taking over sooner.”

Oops. I completely missed that. Mary took off her shirt so Tim could massage her sore back, and when the massage turned heated, Mary (engaged to someone else) runs from her feelings and hides in the bathroom. Inadvertently, I had her brazenly opening the bathroom door, standing half-naked, and starting a casual conversation—not at all what my poor innocent Mary would have done. After traveling halfway across the country in the company of seven old gangsters (well, six gangsters and one aged ex-night hall dancer) she’d lost most of her naiveté, but still, she would not have flaunted her naked breasts.

Naked breasts may pale in comparison with unsecret secret operations, but the inconsistency could have dammed the flow of the story for discerning readers. So, the moral of this tale is, if you remove your heroine’s shirt or other apparel, make sure you remember her state of undress and write accordingly.

What is the easiest part of the writing process? What is the most difficult?

The easiest aspect of writing for me is editing. The words are all there, it’s just a matter of making sure they are the right ones and that they say what I want them to say. The most rewarding is knowing I wrote a book worth reading. People tell me they really enjoy Daughter Am I, that they “hate saying goodbye to these wonderful characters.”

The most difficult part of writing for me right now is just sitting down and writing. I have no real inclination to write fiction, and I find it hard to focus on a long project. I’m sure the desire will come back, probably when I stop spending so much time on the Internet.

Here are some responses from other authors about the easiest and hardest parts of the writing process. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with J J Dare, Author of False Positive and False World

The easiest part of the writing process is inspiration. When it’s there, the words flow like a raging river. If the story is in my head and I’ve been tapped by my muse (and she stays with me), I can write a novel in a week.

The hardest part of the writing process is inspiration. When it’s not there, it can’t be faked. Constipated writing can be unbearable.

From an interview with Dale Cozort, Author of “Exchange

For me, the easiest part is writing the rough draft. Once I have characters and a plot outline I can write the rough draft of a novel in four to six weeks and I enjoy doing it. What happens before and after writing the rough draft is far more difficult and time-consuming.

The most difficult part is the last five percent of the editing process, the part that gets you from almost the right words to exactly the right words. For me that takes more time than writing the rough draft.

From an interview with A. F. Stewart, Author of Once Upon a Dark and Eerie

For me, the easiest element of writing is the dialogue. I rarely have a problem with the flow of dialogue. Possibly because I can hear all those character voices whispering in my head.

The most difficult part is writing the middle section of the plot. I’m great at churning out beginnings and endings, but I always have to work at writing the stuff in between.

So, for you, What is the easiest part of the writing process? What is the most difficult?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire http://patbertram.wordpress.com/author-questionnaire/ and follow the instruction.)

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

The easiest aspect of writing is editing. The words are all there, it’s just a matter of making sure they are the right ones and that they say what I want them to say. The most rewarding is knowing I wrote a book worth reading.

Here are some other authors’ responses to the question about the easiest part of the writing process. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .
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From an interview with Rod Marsden, Author of “Disco Evil” and “Ghost Dance”

The first draft is the easiest part of the writing process. You can really let yourself go. Very few writers expect the first draft to be the last. Michener went through a number of drafts before he was happy with Hawaii. I go through a number of drafts before I even approach an editor.

From an interview with Joylene Nowell Butler, Author of “Broken but not Dead”

Editing. Once I’ve written that first draft, I step back and regroup for a week or so. I do the same thing when I’m finished the last draft. The second draft is my favourite part. It’s filling in the blanks, eliminating all the garbage, adverbs, excessive wordage, unnecessary characters and scenes, and baring the bones of the story. It never fails to excite me during this process. Like unveiling Cinderella’s beauty. Love it.

From an interview with J J Dare, Author of “False Positive” and “False World”

Inspiration. When it’s there, the words flow like a raging river. If the story is in my head and I’ve been tapped by my muse (and she stays with me), I can write a novel in a week.

From an interview with A. F. Stewart, Author of Once Upon a Dark and Eerie

For me, the easiest element of writing is the dialogue. I rarely have a problem with the flow of dialogue. Possibly because I can hear all those character voices whispering in my head.

From an interview with Michael Haskins, Author of “Car Wash Blues”

Oh that’s easy, turning on the computer!

From an interview with James Boyle, Author of “Ni’il: Waking Turtle”

There comes a point after you’ve struggled for days and weeks, seemingly trying to wring words out of stone, when you finally hit your groove and the story simple flows out of you. It feels less like writing than channeling the story from some outside source. It is an amazing feeling when it happens.

So, for you, what is the easiest part of the writing process?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire http://patbertram.wordpress.com/author-questionnaire/ and follow the instruction.)

The Editor’s Blog — A Remarkable Resource for All Writers

I’m almost hesitant to post this, because once you have found this remarkable resource for writers, you won’t need me anymore. (Well, except for friendship, of course!) Beth Hill, who maintains this blog is both writer and editor. Her editing focus is on long fiction, primarily novels. Beth says, “I love the written word, the ability we have to create worlds and emotions with well-chosen phrases. It’s my intention to share tips and insights and encouragement with writers at all levels, to help you craft  stories that will entertain and satisfy your readers. That will help satisfy you as writer as well.”

So, be sure to bookmark her blog, The Editor’s Blog, where you will find everything you need to know about writing and writing well. Here is the current list of her articles:

‘The Top 5 Mistakes I Find as an Editor’ by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Please welcome today’s guest. Smoky Trudeau Zeidel is the author of two novels, On the Choptank Shores and The Cabin. She is also author of Observations of an Earth Mage, a photo/essay collection; and two books about writing. You can find Smoky and her three blogs at www.SmokyZeidel.wordpress.com. Smoky writes:

As an editor and as an avid reader, I see a lot of mistakes make their way into print. Many, if not all, of them could be avoided by having a professional edit your manuscript before submitting it to your publisher, or putting it up on Smashwords or Kindle if you ePublish on your own.

You might think you don’t need an editor, because your next door neighbor/best friend/Aunt Thelma offered to do it for free, or because you’ve read and re-read your manuscript a hundred times and just know it’s perfect.

You’d be wrong. First, your neighbor/best friend/Aunt Thelma may spell great, but do they know all the rules of punctuation and style? I doubt it. The Chicago Manual of Style, the go-to book for American publishers for punctuation and style issues, is more than 900 pages long and two inches thick. I doubt your beta readers have that thing memorized. I refer to it frequently, and I am a professional editor.

Second, as the book’s creator, finding your own mistakes is hard. That’s because you see what you thought you wrote, rather than what you actually wrote. Even though I’m an editor, I don’t edit my own stuff. I have my best friend do it—but hold on, before you protest, let me say that my best friend is a professional editor, so she is exempt from the best friend rule.

That said, I know a lot of writers won’t hire an editor. And this really isn’t a pitch to get your business (although, of course, I am always open to that). So since you probably won’t hire me or any of my editor cohorts, I’m going to share with you a list of the five biggest mistakes I see in manuscripts, so you can watch for them, and fix them, yourself.

Mistake #1: Writers don’t place a comma between independent clauses separated with a conjunction. Independent clauses are clauses that can stand on their own as sentences, e.g., “He took the 405 freeway to work, and he exited at the Getty Museum.” Because both “He took the 405 freeway to work” and “he exited at the Getty Museum” are independent clauses—meaning they can stand alone as sentences, you must, must, place a comma before the conjunction, “and.” This is probably the biggest, most common mistake I find in manuscripts and books. Don’t make it. It’s a very easy punctuation rule to remember.

Mistake #2: Writers place commas between independent clauses and dependent clauses. This is probably the second most common mistake I see. A dependent clause is one that cannot stand on its own as a sentence. Let’s take the above example, and change it just a little: “He took the 405 freeway to work and exited at the Getty Museum.” I took the second “he” out. That makes the clause after “and” a dependent clause, because “exited at the Getty Museum” cannot stand alone as a sentence. It is dependent upon the first clause to be understood; thus, no comma should precede the “and.”

Of course, there are other places you need—and don’t need—commas, but this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study of the comma. If in doubt, look up comma placement in The Chicago Manual of Style or other style manual.

Mistake #3: Writers don’t know their homonyms. In just the last few weeks alone, I’ve seen characters who were unphased, waiving to people, and peaking out windows. The writer’s spellchecker should have alerted her to the fact that “unphased” isn’t even a word. She meant “unfazed.” To waive means to relinquish, to set aside. The word this author wanted was “waving.” And a peak is the highest point of something; one peeks, not peaks, out a window.

Please, unless you are 100 percent sure you are using the right homonym, look it up. The wrong choice could have your characters doing some pretty strange things!

Mistake #4: Writers rely on their spellcheckers. This is a big no-no. If ewe think you’re spellchecker will fined awl yore miss steaks, your wrong. That sentence went through my spellchecker just fine, and there are no less than eight errors in it (“ewe” should be “you”; “you’re” should be “your”; “fined” should be “find”; “awl” should be “all”; “yore” should be “your”; “miss” and “steaks” should be “mistakes”: and finally, “your” should be “you’re”). Homonym spelling errors are the most common type of spelling error I find. Do not rely on your spellchecker. It will let you down every time.

Mistake #5: Writers who make errors in syntax. For example, look at this sentence: “I saw a deer driving to work today.” Uh, no—you didn’t, unless there are some very talented deer in your neighborhood! The correct sentence structure is, “I saw a deer while driving to work today,” or, “While driving to work today, I saw a deer.” Please, don’t put the deer in the driver’s seat!

Here’s another example: “If your toddler won’t drink milk, warm it in the microwave for a few moments.” Warm what in the microwave? You’ve got a choice of antecedents here. Heaven help the toddler if you make the wrong choice! The correct structure would read, “If your toddler won’t drink milk, warm the milk in the microwave for a few moments.”

Of course, if you and I were having a conversation, we’d probably understand each other if we made these syntax errors. But you can’t count on that when people are reading your words. Make sure you have them in the correct order so your meaning cannot be misconstrued.

I cannot list every error I run across while editing manuscripts. To do so would fill a book. But if you watch for these top five mistakes in your writing, your manuscript will be a lot more polished, and you can be more confident about submitting it to your publisher.

Good luck, and happy righting . . . er, happy writing!

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Click here to read an excerpt from: On the Choptank Shores

Click here for an interview with: Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Click here for an interview with: Grace Harmon Singer, Hero of On the Choptank Shores by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Final Edits, Perhaps

I received the final edits for my novel Light Bringer, which will be published later this month. I had a couple of editors go over the book to look for any problems; when I get the proof copy, I want it to be strictly a copy-editing job — checking for typos, the letter I that mysteriously transforms itself into the numeral one, and other such exacting details. When I sent Donna B. Russell the manuscript to edit, I enclosed a message:

Donna, I hope you enjoy this book as much as you did Daughter Am I. Thirty years of research, about six years of writing from start to finish — it’s my magnum opus, though it won’t be so magnum if no one likes the opus.

When Donna sent the manuscript back with the edits, she replied, 

In your last e-mail, you said, “It’s my magnum opus, though it won’t be so magnum if no one likes the opus.”  I don’t think you have to worry about that because I’m sure Light Bringer is much closer to an “opus” than an “oops.” *S*  You have a good beginning, building tension with Helen driving in the snowstorm and finding a baby on her doorstep, and a superb ending.  The double plot twist at the end was absolute genius — a kind of literary whiplash, but in a good sense.  Your vivid descriptions helped me “see” not only the people, but the scenery and locations.  You made them very real.  You made me care about the main characters, and developed both the good guys and the villains very well.

One of my favorite passages in the book didn’t have to do with the main story, but with Hugh’s father (p. 218):

“His father, who had endured years of agony while dying of pancreatic cancer, had once told him pain created its own reality. He said he could no longer remember what it felt like before the pain began, nor could he imagine what it would feel like when it ceased. Nothing else ever existed, or would ever exist, except the eternal pain.”

You’ve captured exactly how many feel who live with chronic pain on a daily basis.

Below are the line edits and some suggestions.  I hope they are helpful.  I wish you all the best with Light Bringer. — Donna

How can you not feel like a real author when people are going around quoting you! Okay, just one person, but still . . .

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