Editing Without Tearing Your Hair Out

It’s far more frustrating and difficult for me to edit my own writing than to edit other people’s work.  That’s only natural, since your own work is your own personal creation, and therefore hard to distance yourself from in order to get a clear view of the “big picture” of what works and what doesn’t.

I just finished the final draft of my novel, and feel like I got into a good groove with the process over the last year and a half of editing it.  Here’s some stuff that worked well for me:

  • Focus on one type of editing at a time.  It’s a different mindset to look for technical or grammatical mistakes than to look for awkward wording, pacing issues, or tone and character inconsistencies.  Big rearranges, additions, and cuts, too, are something I generally want to do separately from other, easier fixes.
  • If I’m doing quick fixes and notice something major that feels like it might be off, I highlight it or insert a comment to make note of it for later.  Then I can look it over in another sitting, reread it and decide if it really is off, or if it’s something I’d like to get feedback on before making any big decisions.
  • At times, I’m intimidated about making sweeping changes to the full text of the novel, as if I’ll get lost and never find my way home with the book again.  To trick myself into feeling secure about the process, I’ll cut three or four chapters that need major work, rearranging, cutting, and/or big additions, and copy them to a separate file called “edits”.  I make all the changes there, and when I’m happy with it, I paste it back into the “official” novel file.
  • I keep each draft as a separate file – clearly labeled as “[workingtitle]v1” and “[working title]v2” and so on, so that if the big changes go horribly awry or some terrible computer glitch tries to destroy me, I have the older drafts to refer to for reconstruction.  It’s also kind of cool to go back and see how the story flourished and bloomed over the course of the work I’ve done on it.
  • Take breaks between drafts!!!  And I mean a month or two, with a couple beta readers giving you feedback before you get started on the next set of rewrites.  This (a) gives you a little distance from the book so you have fresh perspective going back into it, and (b) gets you feedback to work from.  Also, you won’t be so sick of reading the book that you decide you hate the whole thing and never want to lay eyes on it again.
  • If you’re feeling stressed out about a big change or aren’t sure what to do with it, step away from it for a while.  An hour, a day, a weekend.  Not more than a couple of days, or you’ll lose your momentum and have trouble settling back in to your work, but a weekend off from editing is necessary if you’re not going to go crazy – or at least become so frustrated that you’ll get overly critical.  Take a walk.  Get some coffee.  Do a puzzle.  Think of it as your lunch break.  Then get back in that chair and do some serious work!

A Week in the Life

It’s been a busy week for me, writing-wise.  I finished proofreading the final draft of my novel on Tuesday, which means that today or tomorrow I will be able to wrap up the final version altogether.  Just got a few finishing touches on three chapters, and then it’ll be on to writing my query letter for an agent!

My plan is to spend October (after I get my query letter done and my book sent out) prepping for my NaNoWriMo project.  The book is the first in a trilogy, so in addition to planning the story arc for all the major characters across all three books, I’ll be looking into putting together a series bible (more about that in another post, when I’ve gotten started making one!).  I spent yesterday tacking every visual element I’ve come up with in association with this book over the years I’ve had it rattling in my head.  I have character sketches, clothing designs, a map, a grid style outline, architectural sketches of specific settings (from specific vantage points, in some cases), and ink drawings of some types of creatures the series may or may not involve.  This is all on the wall next to my bed now, which I hope will mean I’ll lie there and stare at it at night and get good ideas from my subconscious as a reward.  Ha!

October, if it goes the way I want it to, should be spent in a frenzy of sketching, inking, and coloring cityscapes and architectural studies, reading up on and eating authentic Italian food (and drink), and searching out traditional Italian and Russian folk music for the purposes of a worktime playlist.  Ah, man, what a hard life.

One of my short story beginnings also piped up this week, with lots of ideas suddenly occurring to me that will finally give the story direction, purpose, and cohesiveness.  So maybe if I’m a good little writer and get my book sent off early enough, I can spend a couple days drafting this short story before I get my head totally into the NaNo novel.  I love that writing is its own reward – literally – for me.  I’m like, I get to write a short story if I send off my book before I need to start my other book!  Hurray!  And this actually works as motivation.

A Mantra For Writers

Whenever I go through anything difficult in life, I tell myself, “This will be great for my writing someday.”  Bam!  Therapy, meaning, AND enriched writing skills, all in one.  That’s what I love about being a writer.  It’s productivity and escapism in one package.  It’s a meaning in itself and a vehicle with which to explore meaning.  It’s solitude and communication at the same time.  It’s pain and comfort, catharsis and vacation from worry, conflict and resolution.

Well, I’m going through a big, difficult transition right now (hence the lack of any posts this week), and although there are painful aspects to this change, I intend to take my new life by the horns and use these experiences to deepen myself and my work.  I would advise any writer in tough times to repeat that mantra:  This will be great for my writing someday.  Almost anything can become bearable, with that in mind.

NaNoWriMo

This November will be my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month – and I’m very excited about it!  Other than last fall, I’ve been working full-time every November for the last several years, and this past year I was well into the process of revising the rough draft of my novel during NaNo – didn’t seem like a good idea to switch gears and start something new right then.

So this year, I get to do it, and I’m trying to think ahead and prepare for it so I can get the most out of it that I can.

If you don’t know about NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and November 30th by writing 1500 words per day (at least!)  Correct me if I’m wrong about that word count, because I had trouble double-checking it on the NaNo website.  Of course, it’s going to be very rough, but that’s what I’ve been preachin’ about lately, right?  Write it down and THEN fix it.  NaNo has a strong online presence, too, and it’s a great way to connect with other writers and swap story talk.

I’m planning on writing the first book of a trilogy that I’ve been planning, plotting, fiddling with, rewriting, changing, doing research for, and generally screwing around with for the past 13 years.  I WANT this book to be written, dang it, and it’s time it was.  What better way to stop all the hemming and hawing and actually plunge into this story than NaNoWriMo?  That’s my plan, anyway.

In preparation for my month of glorious and frantic writing, here’s some stuff I want to do ahead of time:

  • get all my notes together and re-organize them, taking out all the discarded and altered ideas and putting those in a separate binder, so I’ll have a cohesive set of details to work from
  • finish my rough plotline for the various characters’ story arcs, leaving plenty of room for the story to change if need be
  • do more architectural drawings of the setting, to help keep my visuals consistent as I work on writing it
  • take care of as much mundane, real-world stuff ahead of time as possible to keep that month focused on writing
  • possibly do some writing exercises to draw out my ideas for the characters and the storyline – sort of a pre-emptive inspiration process
  • get some appropriate music together and make some work playlists for my writing time

Maybe it’s crazy to prep for something that’s all about keeping a sense of spontaneity, but hey, what Boy Scout doesn’t come prepared, right?

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On a side note, I have just returned from vacation, which is why I haven’t updated this week, and hopefully someday I’ll post more consistently on this blog!

Getting Your Groove

For me, it was a long, hard road learning to be self-disciplined about doing writing regularly.  I’m at the point, now, where I write or revise almost every day – and the days I don’t, I’m usually doing some kind of exercise or think-through for my current writing project.  I do give myself breaks on days when it just isn’t gonna happen because of the day job, chores, social occasions, and, you know, all that real life stuff.

Some of the stuff I’ve learned helps keep me focused may seem obvious, but I’ll tell it to you anyway, just in case it’s as useful to someone else as it has been for me.

One of the biggest steps toward daily writing, for me, was having a separate space JUST for writing.  I was lucky enough to get a laptop for my birthday (thanks, fam!), which meant I could get away from my distracting desktop with its high-speed internet connection and loads of computer games (yes, I’m a nerd, I know).  My laptop has no internet connection and absolutely no games.  It has Word, Notepad, and WinAmp.  That’s pretty much it.  All I ever do at the laptop is write and make notes for my current project.  It’s like a little psych test I’ve done on myself – I automatically click into writing mode when I sit down with the laptop.

Now, if you can’t get a laptop or don’t want one, the same idea can be applied using either a notebook (like, the kind you actually write on, not that itty bitty new kind of laptop), or just having something different about your workspace when you’re working on your writing.  Light a candle, sit in a different chair, have a writing jacket, listen to different music.  Something that separates your time and space as a writer from the rest of your daily tasks or entertainments in your computer area.
 
Another thing I’ve learned to do is to have a word count goal every day while I’m writing, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before – I have a low word count so that, even on days when real life looms large, I can still make my goal and feel good about my progress.  250 words per day was my self-imposed guideline for my current novel.  The thing is, a lot of the time, by the time I’ve written 250 words, I’m in the groove and I can write way over that goal.
 
Having a time of day when you routinely work can be great, although hard to do unless you have a set schedule or can set your own hours.  Having a fellow writer you’re close enough to to brainstorm with when you’re stuck is fantastic.  Having a critique group that meets regularly can help keep you on task, especially if it’s a small enough group that everybody knows what everyone else is working on.
 
I do think it’s important to take a day off now and then, or give yourself weekends off from writing (or a Wednesday and Thursday, if your weekends are your best shot at writing time).  It takes a lot of energy and thought to write a story!  Sometimes your brain needs some recuperation time – and some time for your subconscious to cleverly link things together for you.  If you write habitually, then a day or two off once a week is more likely to spark your brain than make you lose your thread, especially if you keep good notes.
 
I’m lucky enough to have a husband who understands that my writing is important, and that the time I spend on it is time well-spent.  He’s a writer, himself, so he understands when I say, “Not now!  Writing!” and he lets me get on with it.  If your family doesn’t understand that writing time is work time, explain it.  And believe it – when you’re writing, you are doing something important.  Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise.
 
The most important part of forming the habit of writing is don’t make excuses not to write.  Yes, coddle yourself a little.  Reward yourself when you’re good and do your word count.  It’s fine to say, “I want hot chocolate before I sit down to work…and a special pen…and a cookie,” but if you get your chocolate, pen, and cookie, and then think of more and more things you “need” before you can settle into work, you’re just being naughty.  Do your word count!  Then you can have another cookie!  Not inspired?  Too bad – do your word count.  If you write crap, it’s only 250 words’ worth of crap, and easy enough to delete tomorrow.  Not sure where to take the story?  Well, write 250 words in one direction and see if that’s where you want to go.  If it isn’t, you’ve only lost 250 words’ worth of time, and you can write the story in a different direction tomorrow.
 
Like most habits, it gets easier the more used to it you get.  If you write every day, it’ll become instinctive.  You won’t feel right if you miss a day.  Maybe that’s a little maladjusted, but…
 
Too bad!  Do your word count!
 
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P.S. I’ve started a Resources page, although I’m not far along with it yet.  So far it’s got some good books about writing that I’ve discovered in the last few years, but I’ll be adding more, as well as websites and books that I’ve found helpful for researching for stories, websites with good writing exercises, and good places to find publishers.
 
Later this week, hopefully, I’ll also be getting the start of a page up of reading recommendations – books and authors I love, and why.

Cut It, But Don’t Toss It

A harsh reality of being a writer is that, sometimes, you have to cut characters, scenes, descriptions, and sometimes great swaths of those words you spent hours getting out of your head and into your story.  It’s especially hard if you LIKE the material you’re cutting out, but if the story is stronger for it, it’s gotta be done.

Yesterday, I was talking with some other writers about the editing process, and in particular about what happens to the material I remove from my stories.  I never get rid of the material I cut, unless it’s just a sentence or a rephrase.  Years and years ago, my mother, who is an author herself, told me (in relation to writing), “Never throw anything away.”  I didn’t understand the full importance of that advice until I’d made the mistake a few times over of deleting something and then realizing I was going to need it, after all.

Other reasons not to throw away cut material:  You never know when you may be able to use it in a different story altogether, such as the beautiful description it broke your heart to remove, but later realize would fit perfectly in your next book’s setting.  Or the character you longed to keep in that short story you wrote last year, but he/she just didn’t fit – and now you’ve thought of a perfect storyline for him/her to have a story of his/her own.  You may be able to turn a cut scene into its own short story.  You may end up combining the things you cut from one project into a whole new project.  Bottom line:  you’ve already done the work for this stuff, and you never know when you might want it for something.  Call it a pack-rat mentality or call it stocking up for hard times, whichever you want, but so often I’ve sighed with relief when I realized I still had this or that scene saved to my “parts” file.  It doesn’t hurt to have a few extra Word docs lying around, but that panic-stricken, “AAAAAAAAARGH!!!  I’ve lost that scene forever, and now I need it back!!!” is something I’d prefer to avoid whenever possible.

As to how to keep your “parts” organized….  For short stories, I have one collective file for the pieces I cut.  All my short stories are saved as separate files in one folder together, along with a file called “spare parts”.  Anytime I hack a section out of a short story I’m working on, I open up the spare parts file, cut and paste from the story file to the parts file, save, close “spare parts”, and keep writing.  With novels, I have a folder for the novel, within which are the files for the book itself (with revision numbers, since there will be multiple drafts, and I DO keep back copies of old drafts, in case I don’t like the direction my editing has taken things), and a file called “[working title] parts.doc”.   That way, I don’t get any of my parts files confused.

And yes, I even keep scenes that I really, really hate, and hope will never see the light of day.  So if, in years and years, I’m ever clenching at my chest, wheezing for breath, and trying desperately to delete things from my computer, you will know that I’m trying to get rid of those really bad parts of my writing so that posterity will never see it – LOL!

Tone

So right now, I’m having huge problems balancing the tone in a scene – which means I’ve been thinking a lot about tone lately.  It’s one of those things that I usually don’t have problems with, so I usually don’t think much about how I approach it.  Of course, I make choices about which words I use, how my characters react both internally and externally, and so on, but generally once I’ve got my characters firmly in mind, consistency of tone just happens by itself.  It’s like going into a situation with people you know through and through – if you and your uber-neurotic, self-conscious pal are going to a meeting with the boss today, you KNOW it’s going to be a nerve-wracking experience, no matter how well things go.  If, on the other hand, you’re going in with your light-hearted, easy-going pal who doesn’t take anything too seriously, you’re figuring on a much more laid-back day, even if the meeting doesn’t go well.

So characters contribute to tone a great deal just by themselves, and that’s generally what gets me through the troublesome nebulousness that is atmosphere / mood / tone.

One thing I’m very intentional about with my writing environment (and which has everything to do with maintaining the right tone for whatever I’m working on) is what music I listen to.  There are times (especially while editing) when I can’t listen to anything while I work, other times when I can’t concentrate if there are any lyrics, and other times when I’m so in the zone or the music is so spot-on when it doesn’t even occur to me that the music isn’t part of what I’m putting on the page.

The book I’m working on has its sad times and its dark elements, but on the whole I wanted a sense of light-heartedness, fun even in the face of danger, and a pinch of irreverence for even the most serious situations.  So when I picked my music, I chose, primarily, jazz.  The playlist has evolved as the book has evolved, as I got to know characters better, and as new elements filtered into the story.  Now, it’s a mix of big band swing, instrumental surf tunes, and the occasional offbeat, funky song that just fit too well to be ignored.  Some of it is just great background music for working on the book, and some of it is so attached in my mind to specific scenes in the storyline that the music pops into my head anytime I work on the scene I associate it with.

For this book, it’s the perfect playlist to keep the tone consistent.  The music says, “Heartbreak is natural – everybody’s got troubles.  Now come on, let’s have our gin & tonics and enjoy ourselves anyway!”  And that’s so in line with my narrator.  If I’d listened to heavy metal while I wrote this book, or The Cure, or Mozart, or Disney songs, it would probably have been a very different book, even if I’d had the same original ideas about the characters and the story.

And a lot of the ideas I’ve had as I went along came directly from the influence of the music I listened to – it really helped me picture some of the events in a new way.

So here’s to you, Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke, Benny Goodman and the Squirrel Nut Zippers!

There’s a writing exercise for you:  Make a new playlist!  See what happens.