Cleaned any cupboards recently?

For the past few weeks my life has slipped away in tiny increments. The decision to sell and move was sudden and immediate so what has to be done, has to be done quickly. I’ve spent many hours sorting through cupboards, closets, and filing cabinets. The tape gun has become an extra appendage. I’ve lost count of the number of boxes I’ve assembled and filled.

Word count: 446                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Hours spent in manual labour are one of my favourite times to think about plot and characters. As an additional bonus, I’ve discovered that moving is actually very much like writing:

  • Just when I thought I’d found a place for everything, it was time to sort through it and toss all the excess. Stephen King aims to tighten ten percent out of his first drafts. The amount of stuff we’ve given to the thrift store, friends and neighbours surely must account for ten percent of our house. Editing my life, like editing my fiction, is a cathartic process.
  • Once I’m on a roll with packing, it can be hard to stop. Sometimes, around midnight, I think something ridiculous like I’ll just edit one more chapter. In moving it’s: just one more box.
  • Both writing and packing can lead to physical exhaustion if I don’t pace myself.
  • Both benefit from input of talented outsiders. Just like my writing improves with feedback from my critique partners, a skillful stager is helping us get the house looking its best.
  • Every step of the way dozens of decisions raise their troubling heads. Some solutions are easy and obvious. Sometimes easy is the wrong choice.
  • I have to resist the impulse to look too far ahead. When I’m packing, it’s disheartening to try to imagine the new home and how things will fit. That’s another job for another day, just like the clear ending of my novel may not be visible from the first chapters. I have to rein in my impatience to know exactly how everything is going to be resolved.

Soon enough we’ll be moved. Oh yeah there are all those small adventures ahead of us, like selling this place, working on the new one, and shifting everything from one home to another. Soon enough my current novel will be finished in spite of its current dishevelled state. It just needs me to pick up my tape gun, open the next chapter, and get on with the job.

When did you last do a deep clean of your writing, tossing out all the stuff you hang on to simply because you can? Should we all ‘move house’ on a regular basis just to keep our lives tidy?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: house being moved from Colton & N Boylston Streets for construction of Hollywood Freeway, Calif. 1948

What are your favourites?

The Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

The editing process has shown me that I favour certain words and expressions. I don’t notice them when I’m capturing the story for the SFD. But when I go back and revise, I’m astonished at how certain phrases are repeated many times. Even though many eyes will pore over my book before it goes to print I’m nervous that I’m going to bore my readers by my favouritism.

Word count: 442  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Because I’ve seen this kind of tic in other writers’ work, I know it happens, even after the most meticulous editing. A couple of years ago I read a memoir where the author loved the verb schlep; he used it in almost every chapter. Recently I read a book by a different author where his characters frequently ‘bellied up’ to the table. The first time I read that it was a unique and fun image. By the third time, it jumped out like someone had underlined it.

I’m not casting stones here – I know all too well how easily my darlings slip into my writing. I let them curl up in front of the warm winter fire and shut the rest out. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. It shows I’m comfortable with my vocabulary as Stephen King (On Writing) encourages writers to be. By sticking with words we know, he says, we find our own voices. 

Then I think of my own exasperation when authors fixate on an odd word like the two examples above and I read my draft one more time. In spite of all the dissenting opinions on this question, I even reach for the thesaurus when I’m stuck. It’s a valuable writing tool. Like any tool though, it has to be used with discretion. Not all synonyms are created equal and I hesitate if I find one that is unfamiliar. If I trip across an unknown word that sounds wonderful, I look it up in several dictionaries. If it means what I need it to, I happily use it. But I have to be comfortable with context. A thesaurus is a tool to keep the engine running, to push through vocabulary block; it's important not to let it misguide me.

Until then, I’ll try to stop myself from incessant use of xxx, xxx, and xxx. I’m not actually sharing my sins because I hope to be free of them before the end of this summer. At least in this manuscript.

Do you have favourite words that crop up in your manuscript no matter how hard you try to banish them? Do you find them for yourself or do you have a critique partner who keeps you honest?

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Image from Wikimedia Commons: Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

 

Thanks for Judy Mayhew for pointing me to this valuable tool: WordCloud

Have you found your staircase?

During a dinner  in  the home of statesman Jacques Necker, someone made a comment to philosopher Denis Diderot which left him momentarily speechless. Later he explained, "L’homme  sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier."

Translated: a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs. This expression used in English has been condensed to l’espirit de l’escalier’ or ‘the spirit of the staircase.’

Word count: 512                                                 Reading time: approx. 2 mins

As the junior participant on a recent writers’ panel, I was asked to speak first. I had no idea what the questions would be and no time to compose my answers. When I reached the staircase later, I realized the points I’d missed:

  • I said lay down your work at the feet of editors. A writer who spoke after me suggested that policy might be a bit too accommodating. Very true! If I’d prepped for the question I would've still encouraged writers to set aside their egos. But I would have added: first get a commitment from a publisher and always hold your ground on what’s important to you. Also when an agent or editor says, “We like the book but could you change this for us,” don’t rewrite on a kiss and a promise. You may end up losing months in revision and still be left without a contract.
  • Be friendly and diligent. Writing opportunities pop up when you’re not expecting them. Recently a musician put some of poet Bernice Lever’s work to music, simply because she was in the right poetry café at the right time.
  • The internet, writing groups, and craft books are full of things you must do as a writer. Absorb as much of that as you can. Then pick your favourites from the Rules-of-Writing buffet. No one rule is absolute.
  • I would have encouraged emerging writers not to give up. All the hours, days and years spent writing before publication may seem unproductive but they are not – a lot is happening in the creative part of the brain. It is being exercised and developed. You may not realize it, but you are progressing. Also, as you continue to study, your skill level is improving, layer by layer, like the pearl in an oyster.

Today's blog is my attempt to edit my writers’ panel appearance, to say the things I thought of later. I’m pushing # at the end of a voice mail message and modifying it. I’m recalling the e-mail and adding the bits I left out.

L’esprit de l’escalier is the editing part of writing. It's where we sit down and spend hours finding le mot juste (the right word or expression) to heighten the drama and flair in our stories.

Have you ever submitted or published your work prematurely, before you'd reached the bottom of the staircase? Is there work out there that you wish you could recall and redo? I am guilty as charged, on both accounts.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Fisher Fine Arts Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, by Daderot

Critical mess

Word count: 394            Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft said HG Wells. I wish I’d known that quote when I sent my first short story to a competition. It was rated Highly Commended and one of the judges asked me if I’d like some help polishing it. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she rewrote it and read her version to the audience on the awards night. Her rewrite wasn’t wrong; it was just different. It wasn’t my voice.

Do-not-rewrite-someone-else’s-work was my first lesson in editing. Here are a few more I’ve picked up since:

  1. It takes courage to share your work; make sure the person who sees it is worthy of your trust.
  2. A good writing partner pinpoints the areas that might benefit with revision. She never replaces your words with hers but suggests solutions to problem areas.
  3. A constructive editor encourages your strengths. Note: I’ve paid for professional reviews where the readers seemed totally unfamiliar with classical thinking like: correction does much, but encouragement does more (Goethe). If you have to ask questions - like what parts worked better than others - it’s time to find someone else to help you.
  4. The more you study and learn about writing, the better your writing gets and the more you have to offer as a writing partner and editor.
  5. Some people want intensive feedback; others only want their typos caught. Remember Somerset Maugham’s words: [some] people ask for criticism but they only want praise. If you’re committed to doing a meaningful review, the latter will waste your time.  
  6. You don’t have to take onboard everyone’s suggestions but it doesn’t hurt to listen. You’re the creator; you decide whose opinions are most relevant.
  7. Still, even when you think you’ve absolutely nailed something, be receptive to the fact that it could be better.

Once books are published and hit the public domain, imperfect strangers emerge from the woodwork to criticize them. Until then, we can select readers who help us strengthen our voices, not drown them.

What are your expectations from an editor or writing partner? Is there something else you hope for that I haven’t listed? Do you use other writers, professional editors, or good friends - or a combination of all three - to help you improve?

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Artwork by: Tom Morris via Wiki Commons

Don't Look Back

 Word count: 297                                Reading time: 2 mins

Years ago my friend Valerio, who was a bit of a petrolhead, used to joke, “I don’t need a rear view mirror because it doesn’t matter who’s behind me.”

 When I write, I look back often to see how I arrived at where I am. Sometimes this is a pitfall that stops me from advancing the story. Maybe that’s why other writers, probably all of whom finish NaNoWriMo in five days, don’t touch their work until it has reached SFD status.  

 Editing is just another part of writing so it’s a non-issue, right? Maybe not. Some people will revise a scene five or ten times while major parts of the book hang like a giant blank canvas. Editing allows them to avoid the steep hills in the road: advancing the story, pulling together the threads of the plot, and developing a compelling denouement.

Still I can’t imagine starting the next part of a novel without reading some of what I wrote the day before. This practice invariably sparks some tinkering and often proves that editing, when done properly, can take more effort than writing. When my rolling revisions stop the work dead, I know it’s time to consider ways to start it again.

At the 2010 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, the marvellous performance artist Ivan Coyote led a session called Writing Boot Camp for Procrastinators. One of her suggestions was to either cover the screen as you type or to change the font colour to white so you can’t actually see what you’re laying down. Her point was that creative potential shines strongest when it’s unfettered, particularly when it's unfiltered by fear.

Do you throw away your rear view mirror and ignore what you’ve already done? How do you push through to the end of your story?

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Photo: Drew Hadley

Reality, what a concept

Word count: 274                                                                                                Reading time: 2 min

Recently a friend said that not everyone reads like I do. Apparently I demand a lot from novels because I want credibility. I don’t want reality to the exclusion of caricature or metaphor or other wondrous literary devices. I’m not looking for it in sci fi or fantasy. But in everyday garden-variety fiction shouldn’t the laws of nature and human nature be evident?

It’s late summer and daffodils are blooming in the garden. Really?

A 19th century schoolteacher with no income, other than her subsistence level job, is fired. Can she really afford to live on her own, in a hotel no less, for an indefinite period until rescued by a proposal of marriage?

A character goes to a big high school and finds a secret room where she can hide every time her demons overwhelm her. Is it possible only one teenager in an entire would test doors to see if they’re locked? That only one teenager would go places she shouldn’t? Can I believe that this room will remain undiscovered for the whole school year or until the climax, when the protagonist’s tormentor finds her there?

When I hit one of these road bumps, I usually re-read the earlier part of the book to see where I missed the essential detail. Once I’ve satisfied myself that it’s a simple continuity error, I never engage with the story in the same way again.

Do credibility issues suspend your belief in a story? If so, can you remember any really good ones? Or do you just read past structural weaknesses?

Lastly, where have all the editors gone?