Tag Archives: non-fiction

The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.

You.

You.

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Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

eleven car

Have you ever thought of taking up freelance editing? It’s a good gig for writers because you put your language skills to work and get paid for it, often earning more money than your client will as the author. And with the abundance of folks self-publishing their projects, opportunities are plentiful. After all, every writer needs an editor.

The bad news: Editing is skilled labor, not something you can pick up over a weekend. Before you spill a drop of red ink over anyone’s precious manuscript, you must know these eleven rules of freelance editing:

1. Write. Write some more. Write until knowledgeable people say you are a good writer. You have to understand the rhythm of language to edit.

2. Read. Read some more. Read all kinds of stuff, because it will help you understand the rhythm of language even better.

3. Know language mechanics and grammar rules (but don’t let them rule you).

4. Think expansively. You’re not simply editing words. You are editing words in a format within a genre using a language that serves a culture containing multiple sub-cultures. A book about the history of hip-hop in Los Angeles requires a different application of language than does a guide to refinishing antiques or a historical romance novel. In other words, “get” the material.

matt smith25. Respect your client’s voice. If your author styles herself after William Faulkner and you emulate Tom Clancy, you edit with William Faulkner in mind. Your job as an editor is not to make the story sound as if you (or Tom Clancy) wrote it. Write your own book.

6. Respect your author’s story. If you think chapter one is dull and needs an action scene to grab the reader, suggest that to your client. If you think your author’s inner-city drama about a middle-aged, married, white woman falling in love her 25-year-old gay, black, male parole officer would work better as a medieval-era papal conspiracy thriller about a robot triceratops discovered under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, shut up and write your own book.

7. Understand that editing is a multi-stage process. Shaping the document involves reading the entire manuscript and identifying the parts that don’t work or the parts that drag or the sequences that confuse, and then suggest rewrites. In the line-editing stage, you will go line by line, eliminating redundancies and tightening prose until you have successfully removed that which blocked the full expression of your client’s voice. Proofing is the final pass, during which typos, grammar missteps, and punctuation mistakes are fixed.

8. Develop an eye for unnecessary words. Read:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

Editing that, you can cut at least 15 words and up to 20, depending on the audience and the tone you seek. I hope your client writes less clunky constructions than the one above, but not all writers are equal.

Here’s the minus-15 version:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs each year, though only one will skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly.”

With 20 words removed, slicker but with less emotion:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs, though only one skates away with the Stanley Cup.”

9. Be consistent. If a movie title is italicized in Chapter One, it shouldn’t be placed in quotes in Chapter Four and bolded in Chapter Nine. You may not be ultimately responsible for formatting, but don’t set bear traps for the printer or publisher.

Lloyd10. Be prepared to fact check. Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake. Sometimes you have to make sure your author gets dates right, attributes the right quotes to the right real-life serial killers, and so on, whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction. I recall reading a novel that mentioned a J.S. Bach symphony. I happen to know something about classical music, and I know that Bach did not compose symphonies; he composed concertos (there’s a difference). I can’t remember much about that book, such as its name for example, but that flub is still vivid.

Note that in my entry for rule #6 above, I joked about a robot triceratops found in medieval times under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thing is, St. Peter’s was not finished until the Baroque era. How embarrassing! Keep your flub radar on at all times when editing.

11. You have to be on, all the time. You can’t zone out halfway down the page. You must read every single damn word in the entire manuscript and look at every last comma. You have to look at them hard and interrogate them. You must outlast the text. If you have a short attention span, editing is probably not your gig.

For real meaty editing talk, visit Candace Johnson’s blog Change it Up Editing, the top of the food chain for such things. And feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments!


What do you write and why?

Writing is like figure skating: A mix of creativity, discipline, and sweat. But it's not as pretty to watch.

Writing is like figure skating: A mix of creativity, discipline, and sweat. But it’s not as pretty to watch or as hard on the knees.

We only have so much time to write and so much energy to devote to each project. I know many of you can relate, because you blog about it.

This week I’ve begun pushing myself to work on my novel. Yay me! Unfortunately, I have finite writing mojo, which means that I am too lazy to come up with an insightful post tonight. My mental energy went to the novel. Fortunately, I have you, so I am going to put you to work!

Please, in the comments, tell me what you write and why you choose (or are compelled) to write it. The “what” is up to you. It can mean poetry, fiction, or non-fiction or even blogging. It can be genre, like Romance or Haiku or Personal Essay; as long as it’s writing and it’s for creative expression. Shopping lists don’t count because I know why you write those. Duh.

The WordPress comment processor, bolted to the wall at WP headquarters is Greenland. Note the spam filter just below the three combobulators.

The WordPress comment processor, bolted to the wall at WP headquarters is Greenland. Note the spam filter just below the three combobulators.

I’ll go first:

What: I write fiction that falls in the general category “speculative,” typically thought to include horror, science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural. If the description “twilight zonish” resonates with you, then you probably have a good sense of my material.

Why: I enjoy speculative fiction for the freedom it offers. I can set a story anywhere in the universe, or even outside the universe. I can change the rules of physics. I can go anywhere, anytime, and do anything. At the same time, I can and often do keep it very close to reality. An odd coincidence in an otherwise ordinary setting and situation is enough to set a character on a strange journey, physical or metaphorical or both. I’m a sucker for a surprise ending or a twist as well, and the possibilities for such in speculative fiction are limitless.

There; that was easy. You don’t have to be so long-winded if you don’t want, or you can post a gigantic comment and text the very limits of WordPress’s comment processor. You take it from here…


Serendipity for Fiction Writers: Non-Fiction

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Find out below.

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Can you afford to not read this post and find out?

Writers look everywhere for inspiration. History. Dreams. Family and friends. Our own faces reflecting back, toothpaste dripping from our chins, as an intriguing snippet of dialog or captivating phrase chooses that random but specific moment to gel in our consciousness.

Of course, it’s no revelation that non-fiction inspires fiction. If you do historical romance, you probably read about the time period that interests you. Sci-fi authors surely devour the latest popular-science books to stay current on new discoveries and speculations. But what about those happy accidents? Not when you’re conducting research for a novel or checking maps in a quest for geographic accuracy but when you’re reading a non-fiction book simply because the cover looked cool when you saw it in the library. Or it was a birthday gift from Bill, your brother-in-law who’s a marine biologist, though that has nothing to do with anything.  Or because you had 11 bucks left on an Amazon gift card and were feeling whimsical that night. This hypothetical non-fiction book has nothing to do with your novel’s setting, genre, or time period, but just as you flip from page 19 to page 20, the epiphany strikes. “Son of a gun,” you say, “There’s my theme!”

You don’t actually say “gun,” but you remember that your blog can be read by your employer, so you decide to clean up the language a bit.

This has occurred twice for me recently. That is, a non-fiction book serendipitously provided me with a story core in one instance and the impetus for an unusual scenario and setting in another. These stories of mine are early works in progress, so they are too naked and raw to discuss in detail, but I’ll tell you how they were informed and will, ultimately I hope, be strengthened by unrelated works of non-fiction.

Project Two is a survival story about three preteen girls fighting to stay alive after a global catastrophe. I had most of the elements in place: A setting, a scenario, characters with motivation, and a plot (sort of…  I avoid outlining). What I didn’t have was a core. Once you have the mechanics of writing down, you can write a competent novel if you have a concept, a setting, characters, a threat, and a plot. You can write a good novel if your story as a core. A theme. A heartbeat.

Enter Girl Groups, Girl Culture by Jacqueline Warwick, a music professor at a university in Canada (as of the book’s publication a few years ago). I was reading it because I am a fan of 1960s pop and soul music and because I am a civil-rights advocate, and this non-fiction work promised to discuss the former against the back drop of the latter. What I got was that and a fascinating examination of how these performers bonded as sisters (or didn’t) while touring relentlessly and being totally removed from a normal lifestyle. Say, it’s almost a metaphor for what’s happening to the young women in… my…

novel.

To quote Christoph Waltz in the film Inglourious Basterds, “Ooh! That’s a Bingo!” And, as a dumb-old boy trying to write about girls, I need all the bingo I can get.

angela smithProject One is a reveal/twist kind of thing that will be ruined if explained, but I can say it’s dark science fiction/ tech horror (you choose the label). This time I had the plot, characters, threat, setting, scenario, and core, but I needed a “why” that was less of a contrivance than “because.”

My question was answered last month when I read Angela M. Smith’s Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema, the title of which is so long it took up all the space I had for explaining what it’s about. Suffice to say, the discussion of the early 20th century Eugenics movement (in part, a philosophy on genetic and racial superiority that advocated for sterilization of disabled and chronically ill people) lit the proverbial light bulb over my head. Why did I bother bringing this up since I’m not explaining what the novel is about?

My contrived answer: Because. Because it still cements my point, which is that writing inspiration can come from unexpected places, especially when you aren’t looking for it.

I don’t know if I’ll finish either of these projects. I put #1 on hold to work on #2, which I put on hold to work on a short story collection, so who knows? But won’t it be cool if I do finish them, and they are published, and you read them, and you track down this post, and read it again, and say, “Son of a gun!”

Only you don’t actually say “gun.”

So tell me about your serendipitous inspiration. That thing that improved or inspired your fiction when you least expected it…


A Real-Life Editing Demonstration

A few days ago I threw out a challenge: Who was brave enough submit a short piece of writing for me to publicly edit? Many quickly volunteered… to buy popcorn and watch.

One fearless soul sent me an e-mail with an attachment.

That fearless – and talented – soul is Aisha of Aisha’s Writings, who has permitted me to do a line edit on her roughly 200-word story below. It’s just what I was hoping for… a well-written piece that only needs what every good story or essay needs. A once-over by an editor.

A line edit is what it sounds like: The editor goes line by line through a body of text to eliminate extraneous words and tighten prose. Maybe flip a sentence or two. It happens after you complete the revisions your beta readers or agent suggested but before a copy editor scrubs for typos and punctuation.  A good line editor not only preserves the writer’s voice and message but removes obstacles to finding them. We are an invisible liaison between writer and reader.

Below is Aisha’s original piece, a moving and poignant narrative essay about humans’ innate ability to connect with other humans, no matter the barriers, followed by the edit demonstration.

Aisha’s story:

It was in Year 7, my first day at The Westminster School. I walked with slow steps towards my class. Searching my name in every class list, I was feeling nervous and shy. Talking to people instantly wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and as I entered I saw new faces everywhere. There were Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Philippines, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and so on. I felt my stomach ache with tension because I knew it won’t be easy making friends.

As time flew I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones, Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima, and I could just go on writing down the names till forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. There was no question of leaving anyone behind but rather walking side by side. We were truly a ‘One Big Family’.

And then the day came, it was the last day of our examination and it was time to say good bye. With a heavy heart and tears in my tears I hugged each one of the people I had ever met in TWS and left to face another challenging world all by myself.

With edits visible:

It was in Year 7., < It was my first day at The Westminster School. <<I walked with slow steps towards my class with hesitant steps. Searching my name in every class list, I was feeling felt nervous and shy. Talking to strangers people instantly wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and, as I entered, I saw new faces everywhere. There were Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Philippines Filipino, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and so on. I felt m My stomach ached with tension. because I knew I It won’t wouldn’t be easy making friends.

As t Time flew, and soon I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones:, Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima, . and I could just go on writing down the names till ‘til forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. There was n No question of leaving anyone one was left behind but, rather, we all walked ing side by side. We were truly a ‘One Big Family.

And then the day came., it was t The last day of our examinations, and it was time to say goodbye. With a heavy heart and tears in my tears eyes, I hugged each one of them people I had ever met in TWS and left to face another challenging world all by myself.

Edited version:

I walked toward class with hesitant steps. It was my first day at The Westminster School. Year 7. Searching my name in every class list, I felt nervous and shy. Talking to strangers wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and, as I entered, I saw new faces everywhere. Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Filipino, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan. My stomach ached with tension. It wouldn’t be easy making friends.

Time flew, and soon I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones: Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima. I could go on writing names ‘til forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. No one was left behind but, rather, we walked side by side. We were truly One Big Family.

And then the day came. The last day of examinations, and it was time to say good-bye. With heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I hugged each of them and left to face another challenging world by myself.

***

Outside of a demonstration like this one, I would only recommend these changes to Aisha, not implement them. You’ll note I did not make much effort to correct grammar. In fact, I introduced “errors” in spots, because doing so sharpened the emotional edge. In prose and narrative non-fiction, grammar is subservient to art. It’s not a textbook, so I didn’t edit as such.

Let’s give a big round of applause to Aisha for volunteering and for donating her talents to this exercise!

Image source: I can't remember. Sorry.

Image source: I can’t remember. Sorry.


Hey, Writers. Are You Brave Enough for This?

brave

I thought of a fun idea. Well, fun for me but potentially mortifying for you. Sound enticing?

Who among you is bold enough to offer up a piece of your writing for me to edit in public? By that I mean you send me a flash story or essay, and, right here at Clawing at the Keys, I will post the original piece, followed by the piece with my edits visible, and finally the revised version, in one sequence.

Your submission should be an original, unpublished, and self-contained work by you, either fiction or nonfiction, under 250 words, and not previously edited. Second or third drafts are probably a good choice. No erotica or excerpts, please, for different reasons.

If you are brave, insane, or masochistic enough for this adventure, please volunteer in the comments section below. We will exchange the actual piece via e-mail later. If you are not brave enough, please leave a comment anyway. I am emotionally vulnerable and will assume you have forgotten about me.

Note: You will not receive a prize for participating. However, several years from now, you will be able to say, “Hey, remember that thing that happened that time?”

Second note, even better than the first one: Please don’t send something you are passionate about and intend to publish later. This is for demonstration and for fun, so don’t waste a passion piece on me. Send fluff.

Third note, when notes start getting boring: If I get multiple volunteers, I can do more than one post. However, if a piece needs extensive rewrites, it won’t serve the purposes of fun and demonstration, so I might pass.

Ciao!

________________________________________________


Don’t Write Boring

It seems obvious, but writers do it anyway. They leave boring bits in.

Read a book that became a film—it has to be one of those “faithful” adaptations—and then watch the movie. You’ll notice only about 10 percent of the book is on screen. The film is essentially the novel in bullet points. The most important bits, in other words.

If your beta readers say your story (or non-fiction narrative) has good parts and a good concept but put them to sleep anyway, don’t chuck the whole thing; cut the boring bits. If you aren’t sure what’s boring, start here [you know these are weighty concepts because I capitalized each word. I’m all about gravitas, which sounds even cooler if you roll the r]:

1. The Expository Beginning

Wake me up when something happens.

Wake me up when something happens.

 

The Expository Beginning is a writer letting you know a story is about to start. For example, I could have begun this post with:

Welcome back and thank you for continuing to support this blog. We’ve talked about many writing concepts in the past, as you know, and today will be addressing something that I’ve seen crop up all too often recently. Whether you are a beginner or have been at the writing game for a few years, it’s possible to fall into the trap of…

**CLUNK! (face hitting desk from sudden-onset narcolepsy)**

Stories, narrative non-fiction, and essays do not require a pre-game show. They should start with the first interesting thing that happens. Notice how fellow blogger and writer Jill Weatherholt begins this essay from earlier today: She doesn’t tell us about the weather, about putting her golf gear in the back of the SUV, or about eating a bowl of Lucky Charms before heading to the links. It starts with her already on the course, already having taken her shot, already having watched the puck go over the glass and into the stands.

Sorry, I know more about hockey than golf. I know this though: She didn’t mean to hook her shot, but she did mean to hook us in, which she does successfully by skipping the exposition. Despite what everybody says, a writer has to use a little exposition here and there. Just not on page one.

2. Explaining What We Already Know From Context

Right, then. Can you get on with it?

Right, then. Can you get on with it?

The human brain is a remarkable, if expensive to repair, invention. It can recognize patterns and fill in blanks better than any computer could hope to. Readers, many of whom come equipped with a brain, understand that if chapter 3 ends with Lazlo the Potato Sculptor’s car sliding off the road in a snowstorm and heading toward a tree, and chapter 4 begins with Lazlo in the hospital with his leg in traction, that an ambulance came, that he survived, that he was transported to the ER, that he was treated by a doctor. Unless the ambulance driver and the doctor are suspects in a murder Lazlo is investigating (he specializes in carving a forensic likenesses of victims from a russet potato), we don’t need it. Like Lazlo, a writer should be smart yet bold in cutting away that which is not required to create an artwork.

If someone said your story is dull, look at the spaces between the action and character moments. Does it matter that Carlos, the poor kid from a bad neighborhood who dreams of one-day becoming World Pogo Champion, is brushing his teeth and combing his hair and clipping his nails before he goes to the prom, or can we start with his mom adjusting his tie and gushing over how handsome her Carlito looks? We can surmise he already did the other, boring-to-read stuff.

From the beginning of each scene in your story, go line by line and ask, “Why do I need this sentence?” If you don’t have a good answer, cut it. The first sentence that argues back is the real beginning. Whatever remains after that should drive the plot, build the character, paint a world, reveal your voice, and entertain the reader.