Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Caveat about Self-Editing

Editing comes in multiple types, and the definitions about those types will differ depending on whom you ask, but something needs to be borne in mind when self-editing:

Writers cannot judge their own level of effectiveness.

That's true for short stories, magazine articles, ad copy—all of it. (I know I've commented on this before, but this wasn't the primary focus of that post, and I want to be clear.)

Writers know what effects they intend to have on the reader. Those intentions affect how writers perceive their own writing.

So while I do believe that some writers can often accurately identify when a piece is effective, and that some writers can identify what prevents a piece from being effective, I do not believe that writers can trust themselves to identify how effective a piece of writing is.

That's why it's important for a writer to have betas, or a trusted "first reader"—one or more persons whose judgment they trust, willing to read their stuff and tell them if it works or not. (Or to tell the writers how their writing works. All of us sometimes come up with things that convey completely the wrong moods from what we intended.)

So if you try self-editing, bear in mind that you still will want at least one set of critical eyes going over your manuscript.

Some writers work best by only having one person be that reader. Others work fine with multiple betas, though betas will often give contradictory advice.

Personally, I find it particularly useful to have a manuscript read by someone outside my personal demographic (be it in age, gender, or religious affiliation), because my demographic affects my perspective. A reader who disagrees with me about life, the universe, etc., will be inclined to catch situations where I'm missing pertinent transitions.

For example, I discovered (after I published "The Corpse Cat") that many folks assume that an intimate relationship between first cousins is necessarily incest, not knowing that it's allowable per some municipalities and even by the book of Leviticus in the Bible.

There's no line addressing that legality in "The Corpse Cat". If I'd realized what a hang-up it would be for some readers, I would've sought a place where I could insert a brief explanation. As things stand, I'll be trying to (briefly) address the legality of it in the sequel to Destiny's Kiss (where Emris and Samhain appear again).

I'd thought I handled the relationship well in "The Corpse Cat". But not for folks for whom it's taboo.

I'd entirely forgotten that first cousin relationships were taboo for many people. I've been used to the concept for some years, starting from when I discovered that some of the folks I knew were married first cousins.

If I'd bothered to send that story through a first reader who didn't match my demographic—which was "people who know first cousin relationships can be legal"—I would've known that before publication.

Do you use one or more beta readers? Have you had situations where someone read your piece and got a completely different message from it than what you intended?


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Setting Editing: Making Sure Your Trail Exists

You've probably heard this referred to as description. You have to describe enough of the trail of your story for it to:

  1. make sense to the reader
  2. keep the reader's interest
  3. fit your story's point of view (POV)

It's therefore handy to attack the setting (the description) as its own round in editing, particularly if you know it's one of your weak points.

What is setting? Setting is your world (where the entire story's set) and its locations (where each scene occurs).

Let's start with #1:
Your setting has to make sense to the reader.

The setting should make sense to you, the writer. It's your responsibility to convey enough of the setting so it makes sense to the reader, too—and in the proper order.

For example, Evonalé in A Fistful of Fire can produce purple fire with her magic. Since that's not the usual color that's associated with fire in the real world, I had to make sure that the fire's color was mentioned immediately the first time she did it. I couldn't wait until the end of the scene and have it as a punch line. At that point, it would've confused the reader.

For an example I didn't write, take The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay Buroker. The capital city, where most of the stories take place, is nicknamed "Stumps" because centuries before, a reputably insane emperor ordered all religious statues beheaded… and that's something that's mentioned the first time the MC encounters a headless statue in the story, and only then. Otherwise, the detail wouldn't have fit.

(By the way, The Emperor's Edge is free, and I recommend the series for anyone who likes Patricia Briggs's traditional fantasy.)

That brings us to #2:
Your setting must keep the reader's interest.

That means it has to fit the context, like the aforementioned explanation of "Stumps." It also has to be suitably short and interesting.

In other words, don't write an essay or a shopping list—or a tirade about the evils of child slavery. (See the next point for an exception.)

Give your readers some credit; they have imaginations, too. A story is also not a movie. The reader needs to see the details they won't assume, not every single detail. (For more on that, see Janice Hardy's recent post.)

Exceptions to the above points come from #3:
Your setting must fit your story's POV.

Your choice of narrator will color how you must describe things. An omniscient narrator or "distant" POV is more difficult, because the narrator's barely there, so you have to carefully balance and consider what the narrator needs to say and what the author wants to say.

If you write with a "close" POV—meaning everything, even the narrative, is filtered through the POV character's "head" and "voice"—then you can get away with a lot more. You still must be careful to ensure that things fit and that the description stays interesting, but the character's "voice" help it be interesting.

For example, take the character River Tam from Firefly (TV series) and Serenity (movie). I could describe her as a young woman, a savant, who's been surgically altered by the government to be a telepathic fighter, who lacks mental shielding and whose doctor of a brother gave up everything to rescue her and try to keep her safe. That's short, gets the gist, but it also sounds a little like a dossier.

If I were to describe River Tam in one of the Destiny Walker books, Destiny would probably say something along the lines of: "River Tam: neurotic teen with extraordinary reflexes and killing ability. Sounds like me."

Destiny wouldn't really be interested in Simon (River's brother) or in the Hands of Blue (the folks who messed River up). So having her mention one of those two wouldn't "fit" her POV.

Do you tackle the editing for your setting? Do you find it easier to establish setting for the "world" itself (big picture) or for each individual scene (little picture)? Do you prefer writing and reading a "distant" (formal) or "close" (informal) POV?


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Patterns in the English Language

English is a "melting pot" language. Though it can be summarized as having a Latinate vocabulary with Germanic grammar, that's an oversimplification.

There's a reason English is often called one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn for a non-native speaker. While I'm not entirely fluent in Spanish, and though I'm out of practice, I can still hear when a particular verb will be an exception to the conjugation rules, even when I can't remember how to properly conjugate it.

English isn't so simple. Even exceptions have exceptions, as in "I before e; except after c or when sounding like ay, as in neighbor or weighweird, agreed?

There are, however, patterns to English grammar. Commas, for instance, often work in pairs. (I intentionally structured the previous two sentences to demonstrate that.) A sentence always begins with a capital letter (which leads to the rule that any number at the beginning of a sentence must be spelled out, not in Arabic numerals). A sentence always has ending punctuation.

There are even patterns to the spelling of word families. For example, a lot of French-origin nouns have a masculine and feminine form, with the feminine denoted by an e on the end. Blond (male)/blonde (female), fiancé (male)/fiancée (female), and debutant (male)/debutante (female) are the three I encounter most often.

So when you're editing or spelling things, look for patterns.

They do exist.

Watch for them. It might just help you understand the English language better.

And frankly, I also find it helpful to think in terms of patterns when I'm picking up words in a foreign language or when I'm creating a fictional language.

Have you ever noticed patterns in the English language? Are there any you find particularly useful?


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sorry for the Silence…

Internet was down for most of the day. It's only now come back up, and it's too late in the evening for me to write a good, coherent post. (Recovering from my second virus in as many weeks. Crash, much.)

Be back next week. I'll add an extra post in there, if I can.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Self-Editing and the Rule of Two

Continuing the "Realities of Self-Editing" series, have you heard of the rule of two, that it's best to keep no more than two paragraphs of the same type beside each other? Jami Gold recently reminded me about it.

This guideline works as a general rule of thumb for many genres, fiction and non-fiction alike. The goal is to keep things 1) clear and 2) interesting for the reader.

The paragraph "type" is its function: dialogue, narrative, action, exposition, thoughts, backstory, etc. (Note that in non-fiction, things like definition, explanation, and quotation apply.)

So, do you have more than two paragraphs of dialogue in a row? There should probably be some action or POV emotion in there.

Have you a block quote in your essay? Does it truly need to be that long?

Some genres and audiences can go beyond the rule of two for particular types of paragraphs. High fantasy, for example, can be heavier on the description and exposition, while a thriller might go above and beyond on the backstory.

The rule of two is simple. Applying it, though, can be a bit more difficult.

First, you have to know what your intended audience will expect and accept.

Second, you have to be able to see the different paragraph types. Some folks eyeball it. Others use different-colored highlighters to mark every piece of their text according to what type it is. (This highlighted copy might be a print copy, or it might be a draft that's in their word processor, taking advantage of the highlighter function.)

Most likely, you'll have some type(s) of paragraphs that you're prone to overusing, and others you're prone to underusing. The POV you write in can influence this.

But there's a way to help yourself write more balanced text, and here's the most efficient method I've found: Make yourself write a short story in the opposite extreme.

For example, I'm prone to text that's heavy on the dialogue and light on the setting. (You should see the original version of A Fistful of Fire.) When I realized that, I made myself write a short story that's almost all monologue and description.

That short story's actually how I got started writing scripts, since I was struggling with one aspect of it and my English professor at the time said I'd combined short story and playwriting techniques. I had no clue how to write a play, so I signed up for the playwriting class, the following term. And therein discovered I'm pretty good at scripts.

Writing a short story in the opposite extreme does a world of good. I'm actually due for writing another one.

Do you use the rule of two or some other rule of thumb when looking at your writing? Can you think of genre exceptions to the rule of two?


*Explanation is not a paragraph type and should be avoided, unless you're writing a Sherlock Holmes-type mystery. Even then, be careful not to overdo it.

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