Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part III — Dialogue

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I left dialogue for last because, for me, it’s the aspect of writing I have the least trouble with. The initial spark for most of my scenes is usually a snippet of conversation; I’ve built entire novels from an idea that evolved from two characters talking about something strange. (I’ve been tempted, sometimes, to share the first scene I wrote for the earliest draft of What We Need to Survive–it looks almost nothing like the scene that made it into the book. I’m afraid if I go back to look at it now, five years later, I’ll cringe to hard and won’t be able to post it!)

So, in the first part I talked about narrative, and in the second, action.

Dialogue, while it may be easy for me to write naturally, may be trickier to add after the fact. How can you tell your writing needs more dialogue?

  • The primary source of information is internal monologue or other narrative. For some stories, this may be the right choice, but ideally a reader gets important information from all available sources, including dialogue. If everything comes from a single source–like a first-person narrator–then we only get one worldview, and other characters have no chance to speak for themselves. (Also, it leaves the reader vulnerable to unreliable narrators, which can be great if it’s on purpose, but awful if it’s not carefully constructed. In most other cases, multiple information sources are best.) Consider: would adding any dialogue to this scene give you a chance to incorporate more information the reader needs? Would any information already included be more or less reliable (depending on your story aims) coming from a different source?
  • Your action scenes are silent. Think about it. If two or more people are fighting, there are going to be taunts or insults hurled along with the fists and feet. If one person is chasing another, somebody’s probably yelling: the chaser, or bystanders on the street who are getting shoved out of the way. Even a character alone in a dire situation will probably vocalize something: cries for help if they’re in danger, swearing if they’re frustrated by something, talking to themselves to calm their nerves if they’re anxious. It’s not impossible, of course, but people rarely react to high-energy situations with silence. Consider: what would a natural reaction to this scene be for an Average Joe character, and what would they say? If that doesn’t feel genuine to your actual character, why and how would it be different? Would adding dialogue to show that reaction enhance the scene?
  • It was applicable for action, and it’s applicable for dialogue: have I gone too long without mentioning a character? Lengthy passages of description or world-building can be broken up by dialogue as easily as action. To return to my hiker-in-the-forest example, after a chunk of narrative about the forest itself, your hiker could say something out loud in reaction to an attention-grabbing element. If you’ve ever watched a video someone takes of a wild animal approaching them, you know they’re always talking, and not necessary to the camera. Hey, look at you, cute little fox or OH MY GOD THAT BEAR IS HUGE IS IT COMING THIS WAY. And if your hiker’s not alone, even better; intersperse dialogue with their companion throughout their hike. Consider: what elements of this scene would be better conveyed through dialogue than description? Should I describe the sunset or show my characters reacting to it? Would they talk to the fox or be silent, hoping it comes closer?

If this seems more vague than the other two entries in the series, well, you’re observant, because it is. It has to be. The trouble with dialogue, more so than narrative or action, is that it’s the most obvious spot to fall out of character; I’m more likely, as a reader, to notice when someone says something I don’t think they would say, than if they mention a description of something I don’t think they’d notice or take some small action they normally wouldn’t. Both of those things are possible, of course, and with strong characterization they’d also be problems–but in my reading, at least, out-of-character actions are usually deliberate mysteries set up by the author; out-of-character narrative just isn’t common enough for me to generalize; but out-of-character dialogue is all too easy to find. (Especially in television shows; with multiple writers on staff writing many different characters, slip-ups happen. I still remember some really OOC lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years later.)

All of my advice here can only be general; I can’t tell you your deliberately silent-stoic character should be shouting from the rooftops when they have a crush on someone, because you know it’s out of character. But if your talkative, charismatic ladies’ man is sitting silently drinking in a crowded bar…well, shouldn’t he be talking? Flirting with someone? Chatting up the bartender? If he’s not, that tells us something about his mood, and if that’s your point, great! But if you just forgot to give him appropriate dialogue, if you didn’t let him be himself as he would in that setting, then it’s an oversight, and adding dialogue would solve it.

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part II — Action

In Part I, I discussed what to do when you find your writing lacking narrative depth–description, internal monologue, and world-building. Today I’m going to tackle one of the other three major components of a text: action.

For context, when I say “action” I’m not talking about it in the narrow sense of “action” movies–fight scenes, explosions, and car chases. In this sense, I mean it quite literally–action is when something (a character or part of the environment) acts in some way. John walked across the room. A broken tree branch fell to the ground. Lily tossed her hair indignantly. The little boy cried because his ice cream fell off the cone and onto the sidewalk.

In every case, something is happening. This is your opportunity for strong verb choice–there’s no “to be” conjugations found here. (At least, not as primary verbs. Because English tenses get funky, they’ll still show up as auxiliary ones, but that’s another post.)

How can you tell your writing lacks action? Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to focus more on narrative or dialogue, and that’s fine if you’re doing it deliberately. But if you have long passages of narrative (be they description or exposition dumps) your writing can feel flat or monotonous. If you focus too much on dialogue, you end up with what’s often called the “talking heads” effect–characters constantly speaking back and forth without moving, thinking, or stopping to observe their environment or each other. That can be useful in short or tense exchanges, but over longer conversations it can feel bouncy, ungrounded in reality, or confusing.

The solution, of course, isn’t to drop a fight scene where one doesn’t belong or crash a helicopter into the forest you’re describing. You don’t need to change the plot as a whole or the focus of the scene, to insert more action. (You can, but you don’t have to.) You just need to ask yourself a few questions, depending on context:

  • Could my characters be moving right now, and if so, how could that enrich the scene? A conversation that used to be sitting in a booth at a diner could move outside instead while characters are walking, giving you a less static environment for them to interact with. If it has to stay at the diner for whatever reason, how are your characters gesturing as they speak? When do they take a bite of their sandwich? Who’s the one more likely to look over every time the door opens? There’s no hard rule for balancing dialogue with action, because the needs of every scene will be different, but in general, break up more than three or four changes in speaker by inserting an action. If you’re using lots of one-liners, you might be able to go a little longer; if you’re using bigger blocks of dialogue, maybe every two or three. If your characters are discussing something serious and you want a slow pace, you can use action with every chunk of dialogue, though that is its own trap as well. The demands of the scene come first, but be conscious of when a lot of one thing becomes too much.
  • Can something or someone from the environment interact with my characters in a useful way? We’ve all seen the meet-cute where the wind blows something out of one character’s hand for another to pick up and return to them; but it doesn’t have to be so forced. If you need a character to pause for a beat before they answer a question, have that wind blow their hair across their face, so they take the time to push it aside. If one person would rather not be having this conversation in the first place, they might seize on any distraction the setting offers them–a blaring car alarm, a flock of birds taking flight, a lost child in need of rescue. Sure, that last one’s a bit dramatic, but I don’t know what your story needs–it’s just an example. To go back to my diner setting from above, if a character jumps in their seat when they hear a dish crashing in the kitchen, it could tell your readers a few different things, depending on the effect you want: that they’re anxious in general, or about this situation in particular; that they weren’t paying close attention and the noise “woke them up”; or alternately, that they were so focused on their conversation partner that the noise reminded them where they were, because they’d tuned it out. Blank rooms may be a description problem, but blank environments don’t let your characters exist in a real, living space. Give them something to do beyond the scope of the person they’re talking to.
  • Have I gone too long without mentioning a character at all? A long paragraph of description about the forest your protagonist is hiking through might include “action” sentences, like a bird darting from tree to tree or a deer passing at a distance. But if the majority of the block of text is clearly for descriptive purposes, it might be time to refocus on the hiker. What was the last thing they did or said? How long ago was that on the page? Did you remember what it was before you found it, or has it been so long on the narrative tangent that you weren’t sure? Just like long passages of dialogue, too much description, exposition, or world-building can be broken up with brief bits of action to keep momentum going. It can be trickier if you’re explaining a necessary bit of fantasy-world politics or history, of course; world-building has a host of challenges I can’t begin to cover in the narrow context of underwriting action. But if you can’t find a way to insert action, it might be a sign you’re info-dumping and you need to trim it down or chop it into smaller pieces to scatter through the story more naturally.
  • Can I replace any dialogue or narrative directly with action? This is a more advanced/limited technique, but it has its moments. A character doesn’t need to think that a sunset or a scenic view is pretty, or say so to a companion, if you show them climbing a big rock to get a better vantage point. In a chase scene, you wouldn’t need the pursuer to state that they lost their target if you show them coming to an intersection and twisting in every direction to catch sight of them. (I bet you could imagine that one easily–movies use it all the time, but they often double down by having the pursuer say “I’ve lost them” out loud, even when it’s obvious to the audience. If they’re informing a third party listening in on the phone or another communication device, okay, I’ll grant that. But simply saying it to themselves? Totally unnecessary. I’d rather they swear at the end of the scene to show me they’re frustrated by their failure!) Converting a story beat from one type to another can be challenging, but this is the pinnacle of the adage “show, don’t tell” and can liven up any scene, cut down on repetition, and prove you trust your readers to connect the dots on their own.

As with my first post on narrative, this is meant to be an overview on adding/improving the action in your writing, not a comprehensive list of all possible issues, and definitely not a “one size fits all” solution. These questions are a set of tools I’ve developed for myself based on my own observed weaknesses; other authors handing out their own writing advice will offer other perspectives. If mine don’t suit your needs, I hope you’ll use this as a jumping-off point for further research into solutions that work for you!

Coming soon: Part III, on dialogue!

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part I — Narrative

Unless you’re a complete stranger to writing advice, you’ve probably heard the term “white room syndrome.” It’s when a writer fails to provide enough description of the setting, meaning the characters could reasonably be in a completely featureless room.

I’m don’t intend to tackle that problem directly–there are loads of other bloggers who have written on the subject and how to correct it. Some advise doing your best to engage all five senses. Others say to ask each scene the 5 “W’s”–who, what, when, where, and why. Both are solid approaches.

But I’m taking a step back from that to look at the larger picture: underwriting.

Not every writer is an underwriter. Beginners often overwrite, as they don’t yet have a feel for what’s important to the story and what’s not. Pantsers (aka, discovery writers) may do the same thing more deliberately, putting down all of their ideas because they’re working out the story as they go, so they too don’t know what is important yet. (Though they’re generally more aware that not everything will be by the end.) And anyone pounding out word count for productivity during NaNoWriMo is going to try to overwrite on purpose, to cut later when/if they revisit the story.

But not every writer is an overwriter, either; and strangely enough, you can be both. A common framework for considering writing is the trinity of dialogue, action, and narrative. If you prioritize one of these aspects and neglect another, you can be both an over- and underwriter.

Any one of those aspects might be the one neglected, but I’m going to look first at narrative. In this context, that’s a catch-all term for anything that isn’t dialogue or action: description, internal monologue, world-building/exposition that doesn’t come via dialogue, philosophical rantings…literally anything.

So white room syndrome is an excellent example of one way underwriting narrative can manifest, and if that’s something you struggle with, Let’s look at some others:

  • Undefined characters: The narrator or protagonist might not be described or identified soon enough, allowing the reader to form a concept of them which might be directly contradicted later. Or, like white rooms, multiple characters, especially when introduced quickly or in groups, might suffer “talking heads” syndrome, where they’re basically names with no bodies for a reader to picture. It’s not great to interrupt the flow of a scene to spend a paragraph or more detailing each character, but neither is leaving them as near-total blank spaces. Ask yourself: have I given each character in this scene enough description, soon enough, for the reader to imagine them with reasonable accuracy? Which details are important and convey the most about them? Am I introducing too many characters at once and slowing down the pace? Is there any way I can describe these characters as a group now and leave more individual detail for later, when it becomes necessary?
  • Internal monologue: I know some readers hate this device, but it’s so common most will expect at least some time spent in a character’s head, especially in first person POV. Even in third person, unless your external POV is meant to be a distant one, you would probably benefit from letting the characters share their thoughts directly with the reader from time to time. Ask yourself: at what points in the scene could I add interest by showing internal monologue? Where does the story need to pause and reflect on something, or show additional information that can’t come from another source? When would peeking inside a character’s head have the most emotional impact?
  • Exposition/world-building: Getting this particular element balanced is often the bane of a writer’s editing process. Too much and the story feels heavy and plodding; too little can leave your readers woefully confused. A lot is going to depend on the subject you’re tackling, be it magic in a fantasy world or the tragic backstory of your contemporary romance hero, but there are still general questions that are useful for most situations. Ask yourself: have I given my readers all the information necessary for this scene to make sense, but no more? Am I having one character tell another something they would already know, for the sake of passing that information to the reader? Do they need this information now, or would it have been more relevant sooner (or later)?
  • Everything else: I mentioned “philosophical rantings” above mostly as a joke, though I’ve read some books in the past that would actually apply to. Literature, especially when it prioritizes “theme” above character or plot, can contain passages that feel a step removed from the story, whether by commenting on the state of the world or a character’s relationships or whatever. Classic science fiction sometimes does the same in its efforts to examine humanity through an alternate lens. And many books across genres have been guilty of standing a character on a soapbox to have them espouse the author’s views on something, in a way that feels isolated from the rest of the text. I’m not saying don’t do this ever, because all tools have their place in writing, but I am saying do question when and how you step back from the story to make an external point about something. Ask yourself: is this truly necessary to state outright? Is there a way I can incorporate this more naturally or with more subtlety? Can I break this into smaller pieces rather than concentrating it in one place? Should a character be saying these things instead of laying it out in narrative, or would that detract from the message?

Any one of these problems can be addressed in more depth through other sources, and I hope you’ll do that, if my overview has helped you diagnose your weak spots. I don’t claim to have examined every possible issue, only the ones I’ve found most common, both in my reading and in discussion with other writers.

I have plans to write similar overviews for dialogue and action as well, though I don’t have a timeline for them yet. Once they’re all done, I’ll be sure to interlink them for maximum usefulness.

Until then, I hope this has been helpful!

Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

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With my rewrite for #spookyromancenovel entering the home stretch, I’ve been thinking increasingly about the future line-editing stage and what I can do to make it easier on myself.

Looming large in my list of regrets from previous novels is the fact that I never made a style sheet.

From Romance Refined: “A manuscript style sheet is a critical tool for authors, editors, and proofreaders to use for ensuring consistency within a single manuscript or across a series. Traditionally, a copy editor creates a style sheet as they edit, and they pass that style sheet to the proofreader so they can adhere to the same conventions.

I’ve nudged at the edges of this topic before, but never covered it completely, so here goes.

In a traditional author-publisher setup, the style sheet, as described above, isn’t something you’d generate yourself, since you’re not your own editor. However, for independent authors who, whether by choice or necessity, do some or all of their own editing, this is going to save you time and stress throughout the editing process. And, of course, even most traditionally published authors spend a lot of time polishing their manuscripts before sending them in, so it’s not a bad idea to work up a personal one to ensure your submission is as clean and shiny as you can make it.

So what goes on a style sheet? Anything that will help you provide consistency in tone and appearance throughout your work.

That’s vague, but some of it will depend on your writing style and the project itself. I can give you some good places to start, however, based on my own experience:

  1. Any word or phrase where you choose your preferred usage. I covered this in my post on multiple accepted spellings. If you have to decide between two or more options, make a note of which you choose, so you’re not like me, looking it up again later, or worse, doing a Ctrl+F in your first book’s file to hunt down what you decided when you need to refer to it again in book three.
  2. Any word or phrase you’re deliberately avoiding. Not to be conflated or confused with filter words; let me explain. The best example I have from my own reading is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Universe series. In it, she never uses the word “thing” to refer to an object, situation, or concept–“Thing” is reserved for use in the Viking/Icelandic sense of a governmental meeting. The base culture of her alternate-history fantasy is French, and simply doesn’t have that word as we use it in modern English. If that seems like a pretty big ask for an author, it is; “thing” shows up on overused-word lists all the time. But your “do not use” word list doesn’t have to include anything so fundamental or pervasive–in fact, you might not start out with any prohibited words at all.
  3. Anything that defines character voice. For this, an example from my own works. In the What We Need series, Paul starts his sentences with “Well,” a lot. In the early drafts of What We Need to Survive, that wasn’t specific to him; during edits, I eliminated it from other characters to clean up the dialogue overall while giving him a more pronounced vocal style. I kept this up until book three, when, through long exposure, Nina has unconsciously picked up this tic and uses it occasionally.
  4. How you handle ellipses. Three periods with no spaces? With spaces between? Are there spaces before and after, or not? I’ve read various articles debating the truly “correct” form for ellipses, but I’ve seen several ways of handling them across published works, so there’s still probably an element of choice, at least if you’re an indie author. Note down whatever you decide on.
  5. Any special punctuation or formatting guidelines stylistically unique to your project. I’ve seen books that italicize internal monologue (common) but plenty that don’t, leaving it in plain text like so: “She thought, I don’t want to be here right now.” I’ve seen books that use alternate characters in place of quotation marks when the characters are using telepathy to communicate, like so: *This is stupid,* she thought at him. (Granted, that was ages ago when I was a kid, but I remember it, because it was so strange.) A much more modern issue–how do you format conversations via text? I just read a book that uses actual text bubble images, to make it look authentic, but in plenty of other works I’ve seen it handled exactly like dialogue, only the tags or context around it mentions it’s a text message; I’ve seen texted conversation formatted in bold, both with and without quotation marks; I’ve seen italics as well, though less commonly, since (as above) many authors use that for internal dialogue and don’t want to confuse the reader by making italics perform double duty.

What all of these examples boil down to is essentially this: if you have to make a decision about how you want something to be handled in your manuscript, then it probably needs to go on your style sheet so that a) you remember what you chose down the line, whether you’re coming back to the project after a break, or writing a long-running series; and b) during the editing process you can make certain your style is consistent.

As you continue to write, you might find yourself splitting your style sheet into a master sheet and a project-specific sheet would be helpful. You’re not that likely to want to change how you handle ellipses, but anything character-specific won’t transfer between projects that don’t have the same characters. This leads me to my last piece of advice: label and DATE your style sheets so that you know what they are and when you created them. Your style might evolve over time; you might decide there’s a better way to do something in your next book. That’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to refer to an outdated style sheet for a new project, in that case, and with the amount of note files and draft versions and other associated digital junk that can accumulate around even a single book project, a style sheet is something you wouldn’t want to go missing or use incorrectly, when its entire purpose is to make your writing better.

Writing Homework #19: Tear Apart a Chapter

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I’m struggling right now with rewriting my current project. It’s a more focused process than the word-vomit stage of the first draft, but not the highly targeted, technical work of line editing. It’s something in between, with elements of both, and my brain, so used to critical analysis of the works of others, just won’t apply it to my own writing at the moment.

So I thought of a way to use my strengths to solve my (hopefully temporary) weakness.

I’m not going to rewrite my writing–I’m going to practice on someone else!

For this exercise, take a book you don’t like. Don’t have any sitting around, because you keep your shelves clean? Pick something up cheap at a used book sale. For this, I’d recommend something physical you can mark up–but if that’s not an option, you could download something free from sites like Project Gutenberg.

Read a chapter or two or three, as much or as little as you need to get a sense of the style without getting too bogged down with the plot.

Pick one of those chapters (or half of one, if they’re very long) and go to town with your weapon of choice, be it the classic red pen, or a highlighter, whatever you like. (Or make your notes digitally on the ebook; if you’re not a fan of that, write them longhand on a separate sheet of paper.)

Kill those darlings. Nitpick. Question everything. Cut words. Change ones you don’t like. Make notes on what’s vague or unexplained.

All done?

Now fix it. Rewrite that chapter or scene to suit your style.

Open up a new document or turn to a fresh page in your writing journal, and rewrite what you just tore apart. Since this is an exercise, and just for you, feel absolutely free to make any changes without worrying about if they’d make sense later in the book (if it’s one you’ve already read, anyway.)

Change a character’s name or gender or race or orientation–don’t we all love head-canoning those bland characters into something new? How does it change the story, or does it? Write it all down.

Is the setting present enough for you? Does it need to be fleshed out, or changed entirely? Switch the scene to a different location. A different season. A different country. Set it on the moon, if you like–just make your changes consistent and believable throughout the whole scene. Change everything you need to change to make it feel natural, like it was always meant to happen there.

Does the author use more adverbs than you prefer? Cut them. Make the verbs stronger. Do they not use enough for your taste? Throw some in where they can make an impact.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea–and a great deal of the specific work will depend on the text you choose, and how you write your own work.

But I’ve always found it’s much easier to be critical (in the classic sense, not the derogatory one) of another’s work, rather than my own. Looking at your own work the same way requires practice, and I’ve just given you a way to get that practice, so get to it!


Need to catch up on your assignments?

Editing Notes: The Problem with “It”

Let me state, right up front, that I’m not suggesting banning “it” from all writing. There’s a reason it (the word) has its (the possessive) place in the English language. There is need for a non-personal pronoun to take the place of a longer word or phrase.

We clear? Okay.

Too often, however, “it” becomes a crutch, a convenience. How many sentences in your collective first drafts begin with “It is” or “It was” or “It seemed?”

It was sunny.

Okay, what was sunny? What thing or concept is “it” replacing here? The weather.

The weather was sunny.

Better, but still a boring sentence. If you judge this point in your narrative a good time for telling rather than showing, because you’re keeping the pace tight, you can stop here. If not, let’s take a crack at this again.

The sunlight shocked my eyes as I stepped out of the dim, dusty antique shop.

…or, you know, whatever your character was doing or experiencing that made the sun worth mentioning in the first place.

So there’s your first case of “it” problem: telling. There are times when a simple declarative statement like the original is the best choice, stylistically or in terms of pacing. But when you’re rewriting, look for instances of “it” that offer you a chance to enrich your setting or characters with description.

Problem #2: transposition.

It was hard to believe in herself.

Starting a sentence like this with “it” both renders it passive and puts the meaning of the pronoun after the pronoun itself. While this is a common and understandable construction–most readers wouldn’t quibble over it–leading with the meaning is usually stronger.

Believing in herself was hard.

Bringing the meat of the sentence forward, ahead of the verb, is the simplest solution, but again, this is a straightforward line edit; there’s further you could go.

Whenever Poppy told herself she had the strength to go on, she had to fight the constriction of her chest denying her a full breath of air.

This is another case of telling vs. showing, of course, and so another opportunity to turn an “it” into story-enriching action or detail.

Problem #3: straight-up filler.

She looked up, hoping it was a waitress finally getting around to taking her drink order.

“It” in this case refers to a shadow falling over “she”–I stole this line from my current WIP, #rockstarnovel.

So “it” is clearly referring back to something, which means it’s doing its job. But it’s also not necessary with an easy change.

She looked up, hoping a waitress had finally gotten around to taking her drink order.

Let the waitress be a person instead of a prop–give her a verb!

You could also say “a waitress was finally getting around” instead; while the tense of the overall story is past, the action the waitress takes is present tense within the narrative. That’s just a question of style–I think past perfect emphasizes the MC’s annoyance at waiting to be served.


There are more ways the insidious “it” can work itself into our writing in lazy, unnecessary ways–I’m not trying to provide an exhaustive list, and the problems any given writer encounters will depend on their style.

But in the rewriting phase, ask yourself this question whenever you see “it”: would this sentence be served better by using action or description in its place?

And when you’re down to nuts and bolts in line editing, ask yourself: can I remove or replace “it” in order to improve the sentence’s flow or make the meaning more clear?

 

Editing Notes: Another Rewriting Option

In my efforts to rewrite #rockstarnovel, I’ve stumbled across a new method that I might like better than side-by-side drafting–using different font colors!

Either make a copy of the original all at once, or paste in chapters as you go, then select all the text and change it to red.

This is the original draft. Red means it’s “wrong” until I’ve assessed it. Does it need changes? Time to read it and find out.

This is a section I’ve rewritten. It’s pretty now. It’s how I want it (at least for the moment) so I can consider it “done”. It may still have typos or need small fixes—this isn’t the line-editing stage—but the story content is solid.

It’s okay if you highlight long sections of your original draft and switch them from red to black without making changes. Maybe you worked hard on it the first time and you got it right. Maybe you’ve got significant changes coming elsewhere, but this bit still works.

Starting with red and black is the basic idea, but if you need more colors to signify different issues, you’ve got them. Here I’m using blue to mean “note to self,” basically. Reminders about what changing this, here, will mean for something down the line—I could even jump ahead to that point where I know a new change will be and leave myself a note, which will stand out nicely in the sea of red.

And speaking of red, leaving something in red isn’t a bad thing. If you’re not sure what changes you need yet, how you want to word something, whatever, it can stay red. Come back to it later!

Now that I’ve tried it for the first few chapter of #rockstarnovel, it seems like an obvious system, a great visual shorthand for what I’ve worked on and what I haven’t. And I’m not constantly switching between two documents, because the original text is all there for me to see in the rewrite–at least until I fix it and delete whatever I don’t need, which is fine, because it’s still in the first draft document.

Will it work for everyone? No. Colorblind writers won’t get anything from this method, and I’m sure plenty of other people prefer more complex or robust rewriting systems–this is a quick, bare-bones approach. But for fast drafters (or writers who would like to be) and people who hate to print out their drafts for revising and editing, this could be the solution you’re looking for.

Editing Notes: The Power of the Spoken Word, Part II

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As part of the editing process for What We Need to Survive back in late 2015, I wrote about how I read my novel to myself out loud to find errors my proofreaders had missed.

It worked amazingly well, but I won’t lie–it was a tiring process.

Recently, a better option came to my attention. TTSReader, a free text-to-speech app. Instead of reading it myself, I get to listen to a pleasantly robotic female voice read my novel to me.

In the first three chapters alone, I found two typos, three missing words, and six instances of word repetition that were more obvious out loud than on the page.

And I got to knit while I was listening, setting the project down whenever I needed to pause and make a correction.

I will say, the app accepts files in both text and PDF format, but when I used a PDF it created all sorts of unforced errors–for example, words smashed together or compressed around punctuation marks, like “said.She” which reads as “said dot she.” Very strange to hear. I had much better luck pasting text from my manuscript in directly, when only my own errors would come through.

Even after only a few hours using it, I much prefer letting the app’s electronic brain read to me than relying on my own. When I read my manuscripts to myself, I did catch errors, but it was still me reading my own writing–I had some idea what to expect. The app does not, which makes it superior, and of course, I also don’t have to wear out my voice this way.

Save Every Word You Write

Watercolors 1

When I got into art journaling last year, I found myself hungry for new media. I had some craft acrylics leftover from old projects, I had plenty of paper and fabric and yarn, but I wanted more. Lots of the journals I saw and admired used watercolors.

I had some old tubes from a set I bought on a family vacation. I don’t know how I always ended up with new art supplies on vacations, but I did. I hadn’t touched them since high school, so at least twenty years ago, and I didn’t doubt they were damaged, but I still had them. Rather than buying a new set, I decided to rescue them.

Watercolors 2

Some of the colors were fine, like the cadmium yellow and red, squeezed out of their tubes as easily as if they were brand new. Some, like the burnt sienna and black, were stubborn and gooey–I had to slit their tubes open with a blade and scoop them out.

The worst, the white and crimson, had completely dried out–I peeled the slit tubes away from them like wrapping paper.

But I can still use them. Add a little water, and presto, it’s still paint.

Where am I going with this?

Save everything you write.

Every plot bunny. Every imagined scene without a story attached to it. Every line of dialogue or descriptive phrase cut from a piece during editing. Save all of it.

Your words don’t lose their power with age anymore than my watercolors did.

Every time I sit down to edit a first draft, I make a new file called “Deleted Scenes.” Anything that gets cut ends up there. Does any of it make it back in later? Not usually, but a joke from one of those deleted scenes in What We Need to Survive is now in a different scene in the forthcoming What We Need to Rebuild, where it works much better.

The joke didn’t get cut because it was unnecessary, or even because it was bad–it got cut because the whole scene needed to go, and there wasn’t a place for the joke anywhere else in the book. Turns out, two books later, it found a home.

Save everything you write. You don’t know when you might need it again.

Editing Notes: Multiple Accepted Spellings

Some words, I simply don’t know how to spell. I have to look up “maneuver” every time, I don’t know why I can’t remember that.

Some words I swear I know how to spell until the spellchecker in whatever program I’m kicks it back. OpenOffice Writer doesn’t recognize “consciousness.” Dude, OOW, that’s the correct spelling.

But then, during the editing and proofreading stages, I run into prickly words and phrases. Does “upside-down” need the hyphen, or not? Is it “duffle bag” or “duffel bag”?

Right now, as I’m typing this post, WordPress thinks both spellings of that particular type of bag are incorrect. Turns out, they’re both accepted–it was easy to find both spellings in real-world environments, ie, I checked retail sites to see how their products were spelled.

So if they’re both technically correct (the best kind of correct), which one do you use?

Let me introduce you to Google Ngram Viewer.

You type in the words/phrases you want to compare, separated by commas, and the program checks the incidences of the word from the selected corpus of books and graphs them by frequency over time.

duffel

In my luggage example, “duffel” is more common since 1940, but in recent years it’s suffering a decline while “duffle” rises. The former is still more common overall, but it seems there’s a shift going on.

In this case, I’ve chosen in my current manuscript to use “duffel” both because it’s the prevalent spelling and because I like the way it looks better. When both are acceptable, that’s a good enough reason, but I like to have prevalent usage on my side when possible.

So what about upside-down? My gut (ie, my childhood school experience) says the hyphen stays, but what form is actually prevalent?

upside-down

I am outmatched–the unhyphenated version wins.

I hope you enjoy another tool for your inner editor to play with!