Posts Tagged ‘craft’

We’re hear a lot of things about editors… some see them as a necessity, a second set of eyes to catch your mistakes. Some see them as killers-of-darlings, bloodsuckers, anal-retentive grammar nazis hell-bent on removing all the unique and beautiful voice in your work.  Some see them as a useful tool in a writer’s tool kit, great for certain circumstances but not necessarily obligatory at all times.

So what is the truth? Do writer’s need editors?

Frankly, yes.  I’ll make a declarative statement here:  the vast majority of writers need and would greatly benefit from editing in some way, shape or form during many (but not necessarily all)  of their projects.  The reality is no one is perfect at everything. No one knows all the grammar rules. No one sees all their own mistakes.  I’ll try and back this up with the rest of the article.

‘But what about proof readers and beta readers or critique partners?’ I hear you say.  These are great. Use them. Find yourself a critique partner that reads or writes in the genre that you’re working in. Get them to read your stuff. Listen to their advice. If  it makes sense and you agree with it, accept it. If not, don’t implement it.  
But do they replace an actual editor? No, they don’t. Why? Because while they’re probably keen and well intended, its doubtful they are a professional and it is doubtful they will give your work the same level of thorough treatment or scrutiny as a real editor would.  Beta-reading, for the most part is not about the prose level issues and is more geared towards structural/thematic/developmental concerns, rather than grammar.

So what are the issues that lead us to need editing?

Grammar:
There first issue is that most writers, myself included, aren’t truly competent (or even confident!) with proper grammar usage. We write instinctively based upon a mix of what we learnt in high school ,what we remember from reading and what looks “right” on the page. Most of us don’t know what a participle is, or what a gerund is, or what a present participle is. Every writer, if they really and truly wish to be the best they can be and improve their craft, needs to start learning this stuff. It doesn’t have to be a painful process.. there are great books out there, some of them which are absolutely hilariously written, which will teach you when to properly use a semicolon or what the the hell Oxford Comma is. There are also a plethora of really useful grammar websites which all this and more is freely available. If you’re not strong with grammar, not confident or just write by feel rather than thinking about grammar while you write… you will benefit from the services of an editor.

Storytelling:
Some people are natural story tellers, some people learn from experiencing, and some people learn from reading/talking/education/instruction/mentoring. We should all expose ourselves to as many different types of learning because there is value in all. This is why storytelling is harder to teach because it is most experiential.  We pick it up from so many different things we do and, crucially, from practice. This is why there is that adage that you have to write a million words of crap before you start churning out the good stuff.  I don’t think an arbitrary number like 1 million is necessarily right, but the underlying element of truth is there. So get out there and EXPERIENCE storytelling. This is essential.  If you’re not strong in this department, or are inexperienced, then you will benefit from services of an editor.

Reading:
Stephen King once wisely said “If you don’t read books, you have no business writing them”.  No truer words have ever been said. You will never learn what you need to know about writing, from storytelling to grammar, without reading. Read a lot. Read widely. Read outside your comfort zone.  The more you read, the better your writing will be, the better your editing will be, and the better your final product will be. Full stop.  If you don’t read books, your writing will suffer immensely; your editing will suffer immensely; and your finish product will suffer immensely as well.  If you don’t read books, even a good editor may not be able to help your writing.

Editing work ethic and work flow:
I’m currently editing a short story anthology (Suspended In Dusk to be published by Books of the Dead Press *shameless spruik*) which includes people who’ve only published once or twice to people who’ve published dozens of stories and won awards such as the British Fantasy award or the Bram Stoker award, or other prestigious regional awards like the Aurealis award.

The new manuscripts that came through from the old hands and some of the talented authors who’ve been around for a while, clearly, were far better edited by the authors themselves before they’d submitted. Sure I’d still be making some minor edits before it goes to final print, this is natural, but I guess what I’m trying to say is—you shouldn’t ever underestimate how well you, as a writer, can actually edit your own work.

In my personal opinion, one of the major things that lets writers down in the editing department —and is a major reason why most of us need second pairs of eyes to look at our work SO BADLY—is that we don’t have an actual editing workflow. We think “OK, I’m gonna edit this now.. dododododo…there you go, editing done” . What is most beneficial in editing, however,  is to have a series of steps.. or a check list.. of things you want to do/achieve and to methodically (and repeatedly! )run through your piece of text (story/chapter/scene) until you’ve scanned it for each of these things and rectified them.

This is an basic example of my editing workflow.

1. Read through the piece of text and highlight anything that looks like a developmental issue… stuff that doesn’t make sense, logical inconsistencies, stuff that is poorly phrased or worded, instances where the author has told when should’ve shown. If it’s my own work, I fix these issues first, because it may result in a dramatic addition of new text or removal of existing text. If someone else’s work I comment them all in track changes and suggest how they might go about fixing them.
2. Read through the piece of text again and focus solely on correcting punctuation… commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, fullstops.
3. Read through the piece of text again and focus on more complex grammar issues: tense, correct use of present participles
4. Go through the entire text again and address instances of passive voice and remove as much of it as possible. Here I usually don’t read the text, but usually just do a “find” for filter words (feel,look,watch,hear,realise,decided,know,can,etc.) and where possible, reword sentences to make them active rather than passive.

Implement something like this (and you needn’t mimic mine, find something that works for you!), and be surprised how tight your prose AND storytelling can become.  If you don’t have this kind of editing work ethic or work flow, or are inexperienced in implementing it in regards to your own writing… you will benefit from the services of an editor.

Conclusion:

I think most of us are lacking in one or all of the aforementioned departments. To that end we will all benefit, to lesser and greater degrees, from having our work looked at by an experienced editor.

At the same time, I’m firmly of the belief that you can achieve a very very high standard of editing of your own work, so that it is 100% ready to for submission to magazines/agents/publishers, without needing to hire an actual professional editor. To reach this stage in your writing career takes effort, resolve, preparation, dedication, but its achievable for you if you want to get there.

If your work is picked up by a publisher, they’ll edit it before it goes to print anyway and should, if they know what they’re about, catch any remaining mistakes etc.
If you’re self publishing, you should still have a second pair of eyes look at it before it goes to print, but even then…I truly believe most of the real grunt work can be done by the writer themselves and a bucket of money can probably be saved.

Everyone should have a second set of eyes run over their work before final print—but I’m not truly convinced that a professional editor is needed in ALL instances. As with all things in life, what you should do is largely based on what you’re attempting to achieve.

 

Simon.

This, for the most part, has been copied from my comment on Jodie Llewellyn’s blog, but I figured I’d make an actual post out of it and expand on it a little, because it is a worthy subject in and of itself.

——————–

We often hear the people says “Write what you know!”, but what does that even mean?

A lot of time people dismiss this adage, because they’re consumed by the literal interpretation of the phrase.  They see “Write what you know!” and they think “Well, I’m 36 year old Dad with 3 kids, a mortgage, a happy marriage,… who wants to hear about that ??”, or they think “But I’m a science fiction writer… so it doesn’t apply to me. If I wrote what I know, I’d have to write about traffic jams and the grind of corporate 9 to 5!”.

This is where people get a little bit confused, and where it is that I’ll tell you wholeheartedly that everyone has to write what they know. What you need to understand is that there are different degrees of “writing what you know”.

Lets go through a few different examples of how someone might write what they know:

Let’s take the legal thriller writer, John Grisham as an example. John Grisham was a lawyer, right? So when John Grisham got into writing he wrote legal thrillers, and he did pretty well with them because he’s writing what knows and they come across very authentic with all the legalspeak and from having had actual experience in real life courtrooms.

That’s one example of “writing what you know”.  John used his actual real-life experiences as a sort of inspiration for his stories or to give his stories that edge of authenticity that they needed to sell well and to be a fantastic read.

If I was to use myself as an example:  I work in IT.  Because I work in IT and have an understanding of various technologies, I could probably think up some cool plausible technology that could be used in a sci-fi story. This would also be “writing what I know” even though I don’t live in the future and that tech doesn’t exist. I’m taking my personal experience and using it as an inspiration and to give my story authenticity.

Other examples of “writing what you know” relates to emotion and life experience. This is by far the most commonly overlooked by novice writers and, personally, I think we all do it but we do not necessarily know we’re doing it, or give it the credit it deserves if we do.

For example.. we’ve all experienced horror/terror/fear/guilt/shame/remorse/joy/bliss/etc.  This is part of our everyday experience in our lives as human beings with emotions and feelings.  We KNOW what these things are like. We KNOW how they feel and how they affect us, both emotionally and physiologically.  As an example, we know anger makes it hard to think, can make us irrational, can cloud our judgement. We know that physical feeling and the behaviours that comes with anger:  you might feel agitated, hot under the collar, you might clench your teeth or make fists with your hands, etc.

So how does this fit in with writing what you know?  When you, as a human being and as a writer, authentically capture the essence of these emotions and transpose them onto your characters in your stories, you really are “writing what you know”. This is particularly powerful when coupled with experiences the average person can relate to – death/loss/violence/family/school/injury/love/relationships/marriage/etc.

This is called “method acting” for writers, or “Talking from the wound”.  It is applicable in any kind of fiction of any genre.. from horror to literary fiction, from romance to science fiction.

The great thing about this method acting for writers is that it opens up vast vistas of creation for you. You might be a shy, badminton player with a rottweiler and a casual job flipping burgers but – using this skill, you can write a character who gets angry at a cheating lover and kills them, without ever having had to have picked up a knife and stabbed someone yourself.  What’s more you can make it really authentic for the reader if you appropriately transpose what you as a human being know about guilt/betrayal/loss/anger/fury/revenge onto your story and your characters. You dont have to be an actual murderer to write one, but to write a truly plausible murderer you’d still have to “write what you know”.  Similarly you wouldn’t need to have been in a war to write a story about warriors or soldiers in a war.

The list of possibilities that are opened up by this skill for writers is only as limited as your imagination and your willingness to truly dig deep and write what you *know*.

Get me?

Writer’s Burnout

Posted: December 5, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

The last month or two has been a hectic couple of months!!

I recently took a class calledTalking Scars via Litreactor.com.  It was  taught by renowned horror master, Jack Ketchum (aka Dallas Mayr) . This went for 4 weeks and over the process of the four weeks we churned out a number of short stories which were critiqued by jack and our class mates.  Over the next few weeks I diligently subbed my stories to various markets, with no real luck yet.  One of my fantastic class mates, Karen Runge, however managed to sell her story Good Help to Shock Totem. Keep and eye out for her work – it’s fantastic.

While all this was going on I was working flat out on my TOP SEKRIT PROJEKT, -> Details to finally be announced soon.
I’m very proud of it, but it has been a long process that has involved a significant amount of work.

Lastly, we converted my daughter’s cot into a toddler bed. This was fine, but shortly after she realised she could reach the door handles and now she’s been making her way out of her room, down the stairs and into our bedroom to give mum and dad a suprise 3am visit. Trying to get her to sleep in her bed and stay in there at night has, so far, been an uphill battle.

My own writing has definitely been put on hold for a while now. I’ve managed a paltry 5000 words of a new story which I hope will become a novella or a short novel.  I’m pretty happy with it but even the thought of firing Word or Scrivener is a big turn off.  I guess sometimes you just need a break to recharge the batteries.  I’ve played a few computer games and watched like 6 seasons of Son’s of Anarachy (which is great, by the way) and I’m almost feeling ready to jump back into the writing business.  I’ve started by editing one of my existing shorts.

Do you get writer’s burnout? How do you deal with it?

Today, for my weekly(ish) writing craft blog post, I’m going to talk about one of the key techniques you can employ to raise tension and suspense in you stories.

One of the best ways to raise tension and suspense is to write sparely. What do I mean by sparely? I mean:  direct, to the point, compact prose that puts the reader in the moment, gives them what they need – and nothing more – prose that’ll really make the pages turn.

This is one of the very best ways to keep the pages turning, keep the tension up and keep readers excited and wanting more.

It’s often said, that in horror “Less is more” – but this is just as valuable advice at the prose-level as it is when talking about whether or not to show the blood and guts on the page or whether to leave it up to the reader’s imagination.

So when I’m referring to this prose-level “Less is more” , what am I really saying?  I’m literally saying  less words (and possibly even short words) is better.

Waffling on with paragraph long descriptions of character’s appearances or individual sword blows is one fast way to kill tension and suspense and the momentum in your story, particularly during critical scenes where action should be happening and pages should be turning fast enough to give your readers RSI.

Think about it:

The antagonist walks into the bar where a fight is about to break out.  If you write a whole paragraph describing his black leather pants and his handlebar mustache, then you’ve already killed the mood. All that tension that the reader felt in knowing that the bad guy was coming and all hell was about to break loose got lost as you described the intricate leather workings of his riding boots.  Don’t do this.  It would be much better, for example, to have an argument break out and use that argument as a vehicle to keep the reader excited, set up your fight scene and you can dribble in a bit of extra information if you require.

Remember we want to keep tension up, reader interest piqued and pages turning. To that end, we want to keep our sentences tight. Only give the reader what they need to know and not waffle on or describe unnecessary details.

Check out the following examples.. they may be a little bit extreme, but I really want to show you the difference in the effect.  In the “what to do” example, you should get a feeling of tension straight away as though “uh oh, shit is gonna hit the fan”.  In the second example, you’ll probably get so bored you’ll start considering self harm.

What to do:

The bar doors squealed and banged against each other and everyone looked up, ‘cept  ol’ John on the harpsichord. He always was deaf as post.

“I’m lookin’ for Billy Bloggs, lads; and you’re gonna tell me where to find him!”   The man was big, his face hard. His hands rested on silver pistols holstered at his hips.

Old Ted pulled up a shotgun from behind the bar. Glasses and bottles fell and shattered as men jumped out of the way.

“I ain’t givin’ him up, not to the likesa you, Grimmit”

Grimmit’s guns were in his hands before Ted had finished speaking.

“Well, seems as though we’ve got a problem on our hands. I’s got two reasons here why ya’ll should be reasonable, Ted.  You want to be reasonable, dontcha?”

What not to do:

We were sitting the bar, when we heard the doors bang against each other.  We looked up to find a large gentleman had entered the room. He was wearing a brown leather jacket over coarse denim pants, that were tucked into leather boots.  His face was hard, as though it had been cut from granite and he his eyes were a steely grey.  On his hips were two silver smith and wesson pistols, holstered in black leather. His belt was a bandolier of bullets around his waist.

“I’m lookin’ for Billy Bloggs, lads; and you’re gonna tell me where to find him!”

Old Ted stood behind the bar, his fat white mustache sat atop a wicked sneer.  He reached under the counter and pulled out a double barrel twelve gauge.

Conclusion:

Cool tidbit about these two scenes:  They both have the exact same word count, 130 chars. check for yourself if you’d like. The good one however moved much quicker, was tense from the get-go and the content was far more exciting,

So remember folks, when you want your pages to turn and tension to build up.. either before and during your critical scenes – write sparely.

S.

Tension.

Suspense.

Fiction lives and dies by tension and suspense.  That may sound like artsy fartsy bullshit, but hear me out for a minute.

Usually, we think of suspense as that breathless feeling you get in the action movie when the bomb is about to go off, or the thrill of fear as the woman in her  runs through the forest at night being chased by the serial killer. These are indeed suspenseful moments.

Will the bomb go off or will the hero cut the correct coloured wire in time? Will the lady get away from the serial killer or will he catch her and butcher her with the carving knife from her own kitchen? Can she somehow turn the tables against him?

These are the kinds of questions that we ask ourselves as we watch or read these scenes.  But they are not the be all and end all of suspense.

Similarly there are other moments of suspense that are more mundane.  We have the “will he get the girl” moments in romance novels or that feeling of “What is gonna happen now?” when the war hero returns to his homeland only to find his family and world has changed in his absence.

This is the suspense of story.  How suspenseful your tale is, overall, really defined by the story itself and the kind of conflicts and obstacles faced by the protagonists, and how you as the writer execute those events and presents them to the reader.

So you already have a kickass story in mind, but how do you best execute it ? What craft techniques can you employ when writing the events your characters go through to really turn up the tension and suspense to 11?

There are a few and over the next few weeks I’ll be making some blog posts which describe them and give you examples of these in action.  You should be able to use them to make an impact on your own writing.   Hope you enjoy, feel free to comment.

Start scenes at the action.

This is particularly important in short stories but is worth remembering for longer work as well.   In novels you can be a bit more verbose and have a few more pages up yourself before a reader will give up on you, but in essence, the theory is here is the same and applicable to longer form writing as well.

If you’re writing a story about a couple of kids who go to a haunted forest for some weird sacrificial rite, please don’t start the story 3 days before they arrive at the woods.  Don’t start it in the middle of their family Christmas dinner and then waffle on for 2000 words to expose some back story.  By the time the reader gets to the actual interesting part – scary forest of bloodletting – they’ll be asleep.

Instead start the story with the one of the protagonist’s feet snapping a twig as they take their first skulking steps into the forest in the dead of night, causing their friend to jump out of their skin.  It’s instantly a much better.

Example:

A twig snapped under Jared’s boot.

“Shhh” Alice hissed and motioned him to be quiet. The moonlight barely made it through the canopy and the trees around them looked  like great charcoal pillars.

Jared grunted and slowly navigated his way through the brush until he was next to her. He leaned close and whispered.

“Sorry. This place is a jungle. If we crash through here like a stampede of elephants we’ll be caught before we even reach the tower”

What did I tell you in this one passage?

1.  There is a boy and a girl together

2. it is night time

3.  They’re out of their comfort zone, or at least the boy is.

5. they’re concerned that they’re going to get caught by someone, so they’re sneaking.

6. they’re trying to get to a tower for some reason

7. they’re worried about being caught

That’s a lot of information teasing the reader within the opening lines. In fact, most readers wont even conciously take in all of those 7 points although all 7 should register with them subconciously.  This should draw the reader in quickly. This uch better than starting the story earlier than this point and should pique your reader’s interest. They’ll want to know about these two characters and who might catch them and what this tower is and this will create suspense for them.

Exercise:

The reality is, all our stories have some level of back story and if we want to get nitpicky, the start of that back story is technically the start of our greater tale. This however is the worst place to start. We want to skip any back story and move to the first clear event or “inciting incident” as it is often referred to by literary boffins, and start the story there.  If you find yourself saying “but what about such and such event that happened before, it needs to be shown for context and so readers understand and blahblahblah”  just shut your inner dialogue right up.  All that kinda stuff can be tactfully exposed through the introspection of your protagonist or through some well written dialogue.  You don’t need to bore a reader and chew up your word count by writing that stuff out.

Come up with an idea for a short story.  Don’t ask yourself “Where does the story begin”, ask yourself “Where does important stuff actually start happening” and start your story there.