Of Productivity and Patience

patience-is-a-virtueEvery Tuesday morning and Thursday evening, I put my kids to bed and get on my computer and curse my internet connection and open Scrivener. I write every day, usually at night after having put my kids down to sleep, but Tuesday morning and Thursday evening are special because those are the times when I write with friends.

Mary has been my number one writer friend for years and years and is pretty much my soulmate. My number two is Anna- who shares with me an almighty kitchen quirk and who gave me a questionable bag of flour that I can’t get rid of because it was Anna’s questionable bag of flour and I’ll be darned if I throw it out before I figure out what it is- and, even though both of them have moved away from me, we still carve this time out to write together. I love this writing time, and it feeds my soul in a different way than just writing by myself does.

In our little group dynamic, I am and always have been The Nag. I’m constantly blowing up their phones if they forget what day it is, or talking smack when their word counts are low, or coming up with new and improved ways to extort their stories out of them. My latest scheme is our Chapter Pact of Doom. (I am the only one who calls it that.)

Every other Friday, we are each supposed to post a chapter of our current WIP to a Google doc that the others have access to. This is kind of new and terrifying for me because I once-shy-of-never show first draft material to people, and here I am posting it to the internet to peruse at their leisure. *faints* But this just goes to show you how far I will go to try and shoehorn forward writing progress out of myself and everyone around me, especially when it comes to first drafts.

I write rapidly. Feverishly. I squeeze first drafts out with the hurried frenzy of Peter Rabbit popping through Mr. McGregor’s fence.

But there is another end to this spectrum. As important as it is to get stories quickly to market, there is a Zen to writing as well that cannot be rushed.

No matter how quickly you can put words down, writing requires phenomenal patience. A book that takes me two months to write can also take me two years to edit. I’ve been querying literary agents with only glacial progress for years. Even if I signed tomorrow, it would in all likelihood be years longer before a book of mine ever hit a bookstore shelf.

So here are a few things that I’ve learned to be patient about over the years.

Editing As quickly as I draft, I am at least that slow in editing. Everything about this process is super slow and thoughtful. A passage that took me minutes to jot down can take months to tweak into its polished final state. Drafting is all about just getting ideas onto the page. Editing is a hundred things more- checking for spelling and grammar; clarifying; refining the voice; making sure the scene and each part of it move the story forward; putting emotion on the page; grounding the scene in sensory detail; ALL THE THINGS. And that takes time!

Submitting Even after all these years, it still burns us. Crafting submission materials (blurbs, queries, bios, etc) is only half the battle. Then you have to research the heck out of who you’re going to send all this material to- and then tailor each submission for just that person. This does not happen overnight. (Or if it does, you’re doing it wrong.) And even after you’ve finally gotten your materials perfect and sent them to the perfect people, you still have to wait for…

Responses So, waiting for responses is actually one of the things I’ve gotten decent at being patient for. When I first started submitting stuff (to anyone, really- friends, beta readers, agents, etc), I felt like I was sitting in a boiler room on a bed of broken glass. There were even a few times where anxiety got the better of me and I thought I was going to die of a heart attack or something before the whole ordeal was over. But these days, I’ve learned how to keep myself busy while waiting for responses. I have other projects I work on. I send things out in batches timed so that there’s always a few out and a few more to send. I read exciting books. I occasionally skip the country on vacations. You know, things like that.

Fame, Riches, and Glory I’m, uh… I’m still waiting on this one. Completely. And frankly, this is probably a thing I’ll be patiently waiting for until I die.

Writing is a lot of work- the kind of work that happens quickly, and the kind that happens slowly. If I worked very slowly at all of it, I would never have the body of prose that I’ve accumulated, nor gotten through the literal millions of words of practice that I have. But if I was a slave to speed in its every aspect, sure, maybe I’d have a lot of work, but none of it would have the kind of polished refine that it requires to garner any critical notice, whether that’s from agents or publishers or readers. A writer requires both. And that is something that took me a long time to learn.

So whether you’re pouring on the heat to try and muscle through a first draft in three weeks flat, or reining in the horses to make sure you really get this one line just right, take pride in knowing that you’re giving your work just what it needs- a push of productivity, and a pinch of patience, each in due course.

Happy writing!

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Pants, Plans, and In Between

pantsLong time readers may have noticed this about me, but I like to experiment from time to time with my writing strategies. Sometimes I try a bunch of creativity inducing activities to see which ones I like best. Sometimes I try out several writing programs to see if there’s a better system out there. I know what’s working for me now, but I don’t always know what will work better.

To that end, I’ve been experimenting this last year with various degrees of plotting preparation. When I first started out this writing gig, I was pretty deep in Pants territory, writing whatever the heck I wanted as the whimsy took me. I planned absolutely nothing. In recent years, I’ve been taking an increasingly structured stance for starting out new projects. I even sometimes use wonky little character sheets that might have details about their dietary preferences in childhood and how their first pet died. Real who-cares sorts of details, but it helps me get into the characters’ lives a little more.

The last three books I’ve written, current project inclusive, I’ve taken pains to plan them to different degrees. In the first book, I did no planning whatsoever; I went into it with a very brief premise idea, and just wrote whatever little rabbit trails came to mind. For the second book, I did just a little bit less than my usual degree of preparation, falling about midway between no plan and front-to-finish omniplan. And for my current project, I planned and planned until I felt like I had everything down and if I did any more planning, I would puke.

Here are my thoughts!

The Plans-Are-For-Sissies Approach: This one was a little painful. The words seemed to come alright, and I never really lacked for inspiration, but story wandered quite a bit before I found the track I wanted to take, and this poor baby will require gobs of editing to clean up all the foreshadowing that never went anywhere, the events that came out of nowhere, the sudden and significant eye color change of the secondary main character midway through the book, et cetera ad infinitum. (Heck, I never even nailed down which title I want to use.) Not only was the story all over the place, but writing the thing out took kind of forever. I never really lacked for things to write, but not having a plan meant moving forward at a snail’s pace. It took nearly six months to write this meandering draft, while first drafts of a similar size usually take me about two or three. I like the story, and I enjoyed the totally-free-to-explore feeling of writing, but it came at a huge time cost.

The Moderate’s Approach: This one was even more painful, but for different reasons that are probably not the method’s fault at all. I planned out the story just a smidgeon past the midway point in moderate detail, leaving myself a bit of wiggle room for exactly how things would take place, and a whole lot of wiggle room for how things would wrap up. The story progressed pretty easily at first, following my nice little plan. But the closer I got to the end, the more I realized I was in deep water. As things came onto the paper, all the little gaps and giant holes became painfully apparent. When I got past the outline’s reaches, I was swimming blind but, unlike the Plans-Are-For-Sissies story, nothing was coming. I tried to force it and things just got more and more lame, until finally I quit a couple chapters before the anticlimactic final battle. Blehhhhh… But as I said, this is probably more due to the story idea’s weakness than the method’s invalidity. The Moderate’s Approach is probably closer to my regular degree of plannedness (which is totally a word, shhh) than either of the others. I think I just picked a bum story idea for the experiment. 😦

The Doomsday-Prepper Approach: I can’t totally write this experiment off as done, since I’m still working my way through the book, but I have been so far most comfortable with this one. This story- and the historical timeline, the magic system, and each character and location- was planned out in detail, start to finish, before I even created the new Scrivener file. Honestly, the planning stage is usually the most fun part of the whole process for me, and I was a little worried I would use up all the funness (also a word, sh) before I got to the drafting phase. But I’ve been working on it for about a month now and things are still fun! I will say, though, progress is being made, but the words aren’t flying onto the page the way I assume they would with the way ahead so clear from the start. But this could also be a product of my writing habits; when doing the meandering no plan book, I got into the habit of just sort of picking at it- about five hundred words a day- and that habit has so far stuck. But as I write this, I am resolving anew to pick up the pace. Ask me how I’m doing in another month!

So this little experiment is inconclusive. Turns out each story (like each pregnancy?) is different. Go figure. But still, I had fun playing around with the degree to which I plan a story, and I now have a firmer awareness of exactly what my most comfortable planning style is. Not quite a pantser, and not quite a full on planner, but a plans-oriented plantser, which is kind of what I had figured I was before. Turns out I found the spot just by wandering there all on my own over the last twenty years of writing.

How about you readers? What’s your planning style? Why do you like it that way? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

Writing Distinct Characters

paperpeople I didn’t get as much editing in last year as I would have liked, and I hope to remedy that this year. To that end, I started working on edits for a book I drafted a couple years ago and, after plopping myself down in the middle of an early chapter conversation, I realized something horrible- I couldn’t tell who was talking. I’m notorious among my beta readers for sparse, vague, or no attribution tags and I like to think that normally I can kind of get away with it because the characters have distinct enough voices that you can mostly tell who is speaking anyway.

But not this conversation. Both characters sounded exactly the same- they both sighed, rolled their eyes, raised their voices, used the same diction. They were indecipherable. And that is a huge problem.

Now, I was incredibly relieved to find that they grew their own voices after another chapter or two, but it got me thinking- what are some of the key elements of crafting a cast of distinct characters? How can you make sure that each of yours is clear and unique enough that, even without attribution tags, readers can still tell who is who?

Before you can even get into the nitty gritty of how to set your characters apart, it’s important to know the background and personality of the characters. Without a solid knowledge of these attributes, it will be hard to write believable differences into your cast. So the more a character talks, the more detail you’ll want in your character bio. Know where they grew up, their social class, their outlooks on life, their history, their first language, etc. All these things will inform the ways that you make your characters unique on the page.

So what can a writer focus on to make it easy for readers to tell who’s who? Let’s look at a few ideas!

Attribution Tags Those things before or after quotes of text- he said, she said, they said, Sally shouted, Bob asked, etc. They’re helpful in long conversations, dialog with lots of participants, and lots of other situations, but ideally, your characters’ voices are so distinct that these can be removed, and readers will still know who’s talking. (But you wouldn’t want to actually remove them all from your text- while readers could still figure out who’s talking, it takes a lot more thought to do so, making for a slower- and therefore less engaging- read. Put in just enough to keep everything clear and moving forward.)

Speech Patterns This one is also pretty commonly talked about, but it’s worth a bit more detail. Is your character’s tongue a slang-studded slathering of pop culture? Do they use way more words than necessary? Do they like really long words? Do they mispronounce? Does their language lilt? Each of your characters should tell different styles of jokes, make differing comparisons, etc. A character from Dublin will obviously use very different speech patterns than a character from Taipei, but even two New Yorkers will each use a distinct idiolect all their own, based on the people they grew up around, where they went to school, what they do for a living, etc.

Tics and Physical Cues Do you have a character who laughs out loud, and then quickly claps her hands over her mouth? Do you have another character who sucks on the hem of his tee shirt when he’s nervous? Congratulations, these characters have different physical cues for readers! Does every character in your cast frequently sigh and/or roll their eyes? Maybe work on that! *coughs* Physical cues can be anything from a mention of a particular hair color to the use of a particular tic. (For an example of a tic, when I’m nervous or embarrassed, I widen my eyes and duck my chin, but maintain strict eye contact. If my hands are free, I squeeze my left fingers in my right ones, with my arms pressed tight against my sides. Even knowing I do this, I cannot stop, which usually makes me blush as well. When my husband is nervous, he nods a lot, repeats himself in a soft voice, and doesn’t maintain eye contact very well, frequently glancing away. These are our different tics, even though we’re both white 32-year-old middle class Americans.)

Attitude Are your characters chatty? Do they use slang? Are they rude to servants? Do they talk with their hands?  Are they moody, or hopeful, or angry? Are they focused on the pudding their mom just brought in, or are they wondering where their wife got those new diamond earrings, or are they hoping their husband doesn’t notice that their hands are shaking? Even if you have two characters from the same town, same class, same race, even the same household, they should still be distinct in their attitudes and expectations. So who in your cast is an incorrigible pessimist? Which one is certain love will conquer all? Who’s sure their boss is out to get them? These attitudes will factor into the things the character notices and talks about, and inform their distinct personality.

These are just a few broad ideas to keep in mind, and there’s often bleed-over between them. Every person in the world is mommy’s special snowflake, and while story characters could never attain the same level of complexity as a real person, we are authors do our best to present the illusion of that same level of complexity and believability. That illusion is shattered when characters don’t sound and look and feel unique on the page. (Unless you’re writing about the Borg. I guess if you’re writing about the Borg, good work, carry on?)

Until next week, happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!

Getting Publication Ready with Jane Friedman

Jane-Friedman-1First off, this woman looks eerily like my sister-in-law. I had to get that off my chest. It’s like future Annie has come back to the past to tell me about books.

Second, Jane Friedman is a publishing beast. Co-founder of the Hot Sheet, former editor of Writer’s Digest, Ms. Friedman has a bio that makes me want to curl up under a blankie and weep at all the majesty. She managed to pack one metric tonne of information into the three hour class. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fit it all into a single blog post, so I’m only going to talk this week about just getting your book ready for publication. I will come back to address the other topics- the five categories of publishing and how to go about them- in more detail in later posts, so fear not. Start looking for those toward the beginning of next year, maaaybe a little sooner if I get an unexpected hole in my schedule.

But if that’s too long a wait, I came across this class, How to Publish Your Book, with Jane Friedman, while perusing a catalog for The Great Courses. It looks like it might cover some of the same information, and is massively on sale until 26 October. You know, if you’re the impatient type.

However! being the impatient type is not the best way to be when hoping to publish a book. Slow down, cowboy! Let’s talk about the steps you must go through to successfully get your book ready for publication, whether that’s traditional, indie, or somewhere in between.

The first step is to make sure that your book is its best possible self. This includes drafting, self-editing, beta editing, rewriting, maybe even professional editing, the works. This is a very long process, and it can be hard to tell when you’re really done here. The yardstick I’ve been using is that I am a) stupidly proud of the work, and b) feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head every time I open the file again. It’s a strange balance. But after your manuscript is the absolute prettiest it can be, then you can turn your mind to preparing for publication, and that means market research.

The earliest parts of research can be done from within the comfortable confines of your very own story- you have to know what you’re selling. Know whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, know what your intended age group is, and know your category.  For fiction, have you written mainstream, literary, or genre? For nonfiction, is the MS narrative, prescriptive, or inspirational? Each of these groupings will point toward a different target audience and, if you’re traditionally publishing, a different submission target.

Be aware of the different age categories and try not to straddle them. (I am so bad about straddling age categories, ugggggh.) Also, never claim that your project is “hard to categorize”. Nobody likes that and it doesn’t give potential readers any information. Instead, say that it’s “multi-genre” or has “crossover appeal” and mention just two specific categories.

Once you have your book all neatly categorized, do some market research. Your goal here is to understand the commercial viability of a project, which is important whether you plan to enlist the help of traditional publishers or to go it alone. But just for general reference, I’m going to list some of the positive and negative signs a publisher will look for when deciding whether a book is marketable or not.

Positive Signs (do this stuff) Negative Signs (avoid this stuff)
  • Uses standard lengths (wordcount)
  • Written in a commercial genre
  • Author has a solid platform (for nonfiction)
  • Wordcounts that are way outside of norms (<50k, >120k, etc)
  • Tough sell categories (cookbooks, picture books, travel books, short story complication, etc)
  • Memoirs without a high concept or publicity angle

If you find that your book has some of those negative signs, maybe give it a closer squint before moving past this point. (Huge books by unknown authors are a hard sell, no matter which publication route you choose. Most cookbooks are sold by celebrity chefs. Keep these things in mind when figuring out your own market viability.)

For traditional publishing, this is where you start getting your submission packet ready, which probably includes something like a query, sample pages, and a synopsis; know ahead of time whether you want to query agents or publishing houses directly, because you’re not supposed to do both at the same time, and follow submission guidelines exactly. Novels and memoirs must be finished, edited, and polished before beginning the submission process. For nonfiction, write the book proposal first, including a business plan; since publishers don’t have the finished materials, you have to convince them that this book will sell.

If you’re going the indie route, you don’t need a proposal or query, but you still need a lot of the bits and pieces that would go into them, including a business plan, sales copy, and a finely polished project. In addition, you’ll also need to work out your book design, including formatting, cover design, blurbs, etc. If you’re not a professional [editor/book designer/artist/etc], pay for one like any other book publisher would.

When putting together back cover blurbs/pitches, business plans, and author bios, feel free to pick the brains of your friends, family, and neighbors on the bus to work. This stuff is hard to write, but having extra eyes on it can help you pick out the pieces that aren’t clear, or that sound strange, or whatever the problem may be. Just as you wouldn’t try to publish a work that hadn’t been beta read and closely edited, don’t try to do that with this stuff either. These things make up the sales pitch of your book, whether you’re addressing it to agents, editors, or readers. Give it the same care that you have given the rest of your book.

After you have all these scores of little duckies in a row, it’s time to get your rhinoceros-thick skin on. You’re ready to step into the publishing ring! Good luck!

Reedsy Broadcast Recap: Revising and Querying

EditingSome months ago, I listened to a broadcast hosted by Reedsy called Revising Your Manuscript and Query Letter; it was moderated by Ricardo Fayat, the founder and CMO at Reedsy, and presented by five editors and literary agents from their network. I’ve since signed up for several of Reedsy’s free 10-email courses through Reedsy Learning, which you can learn more about here. Reedsy is a self-publishing service based out of London and, although I haven’t quite hopped on the self-publishing bandwagon just yet, I’m always down with further educating myself.

Anyway, I took a bunch of notes from the broadcast and quickly forgot about them. But recently, in preparation for an upcoming writer’s conference, blew off the dust and thumbed through it to help me get ready for a manuscript review. So here’s the quick version of the broadcast.

Revising Your Manuscript

For your opening, make sure that you start with action- something visual, intense, and unexpected. (‘Action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a gunfight or crossing swords. Action can be much quieter so long as it’s clear and powerful, drawing readers in.) Whatever your opening scene entails, be original and above all else, don’t be boring.

Some of the most common manuscript mistakes the broadcast’s presenters see are:

  • Telling instead of showing
  • Unbelievable conflict (forcing the plot, character out of character, etc)
  • Confusing viewpoint
  • Unnecessary Wordiness
  • Disruptive dialog tags (usually, just stick to ‘said’)
  • Misuse of tense

Once you’ve revised your manuscript as much as you can (read: several drafts), it’s time to get other eyes on it. (The broadcast didn’t specifically mention beta readers at this point, but in my opinion, they should have. Beta readers are great!) Professional editors are spendy, but they can also be transformative.

Because it can be such a costly investment, take care to make sure you have the right agent for your project. Start by searching reputable websites, such as Reedsy. 😉  Once you have a few potentials, take the time to do some background checking. Ask for testimonials or recommendations from previous patrons.

When you have an editor you trust, send the following information: kind of editing wanted; genre, synopsis, and target market; and a sample of the book. When deciding what kind of editing you want done, keep in mind that different types of editing usually cannot happen in the same sweep. (If you’re specifically getting ready for submissions, the broadcast folks recommend focusing on developmental editing.) Also keep in mind that good editors are often booked out months in advance. Don’t expect a rush job.

When your manuscript is all edited up and ready to go, shift your focus over to preparing your submission materials.

Sending Out Your Query

Well known agencies receive between one to two hundred queries every day, so it’s hard to stand out from all that.

The first hurdle to jump is avoiding these common querying mistakes:

  • Rudeness, arrogance, and a lack of professionalism
  • Not following guidelines
  • Too much plot and not enough hook
  • Submitting work that isn’t fully edited
  • Lack of research (both within genre and in querying specific agents)

As far as researching agents and publishers goes, there are a lot of resources out there, such as Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, Authors Publish, Submittable, and Publishers Weekly. You can search through genre specific blogs for agent interviews with more specific information. Most agents these days also have a public blog you can comb through. If you’re on Twitter, you can run a search for publishing pundits’ manuscript wish lists.

This kind of specific information is perfect for a query letter’s personalization; personalization isn’t necessary, but does make you stand out a bit more, flatters the editor/agent, and at the very least shows that you did your homework. If nothing else, a more personal query encourages a more personal rejection, feedback which can then be used for later revisions.

While querying, it’s important to keep yourself organized, especially if you’re doing multiple submissions (which you absolutely should). Nothing screams amateur quite like accidentally querying the same place with the same piece twice. (Intentionality is different. If it’s been six months and you’ve completed heavy revision, it’s usually okay to resubmit- just be sure to mention it in the query.) Keep all your information in one place with a spreadsheet, keeping track of names, dates, etc. Prioritize your top agents and send out batches of queries (they suggest about six at a time), giving each batch about six weeks before moving on to the next group. As you learn from the process and (hopefully) feedback, make tweaks as needful. If you get feedback but feel strongly that it’s not appropriate for you or your project, don’t feel like you have to implement it. The agents and editors of this broadcast also suggest that, if you don’t get feedback, it’s okay to politely ask for it; you might still be ignored, but you also might get some insights otherwise left unsaid.

The thing that was stressed over and over throughout is to not give up. The submissions process is grueling. If you’ve been at it a while and still aren’t making much headway, don’t give up. Keep polishing, keep researching, and keep querying.

Happy writing!

Editing: The Art of Self-Surgery

editingYou know that scene in Master and Commander where Dr. Maturin has to fish a bullet out of his own belly?  That’s about how I think of self editing.  It’s messy, painful, and exhausting, but ugh, it’s gotta be done.

Between smugly typing THE END and hyperventilatingly clicking SEND, you will (or at least should) spend many many hours self editing.  How these hours are spent varies from person to person, like all other aspects of writing.  After a nice long rest of at least a month, here’s how my editing process usually goes down.

First, I set a deadline.  I, my father, my children, and all of my brothers absolutely require a non-negotiable deadline to do anything at all.  If it’s not pressing, it’s not happening.  I give myself enough time to get through the thing (typically a two to one ration of editing to drafting time), but not much wiggle room.

As part of my deadline setting process, I start with a fast read-through.  I try to finish in just a few days, at about the same pace I would read a really engrossing novel.  This allows me to take a big picture view of what I’m working with, making it easier to see any plot holes, dangling storylines, sudden changes in eye color, whatever.  I take detailed notes throughout this reading so I know exactly what the problems are.

Once I have my list of issues, I set a realistic deadline and get to work.  Working outside of chronology, I usually start with the easier problems first, the things that I can already see the answers for.  This allows me to work- and again immerse myself in the world- while still devoting a large portion of my brain power to thinking about the problems that I don’t have the solutions for yet.  As I did when compiling problems, I write down any and all solutions I can come up with- no matter how stupid they may seem.  Eventually, I can usually sift through enough pyrite to find a few good nuggets.

Hopefully, by the time I work my way through the simpler problems, I’ll have come up with the glorious, surprising, satisfying solutions to the trickier problems, too.  But the reality is that I typically spend about a quarter of my editing time fixing the easy issues, another quarter of my time sprinkled here and there just trying to work my way toward the harder solutions, and then a quarter on the bigger issues once I have those solutions, and the final quarter on the clean-up at the end.

This ‘final’ cleaning process is done chronologically, starting at the beginning and working my way slowly toward the end.  I tend to require the same tweaks in everything I write, and so I’ve developed a to-do list that doesn’t vary much from MS to MS.

Fix spelling and grammar.  Bit of a no-brainer, but when I’m pounding out a quick draft, I apparently have no brain.

Skim out crutch words.  Your list of crutch words will be different, but mine includes: suddenly; up; again; back; and like a bazillion others.  The internet is rife with lists of words to seek and destroy in your manuscript, so if you’re still not sure, just run a Google search and get that Find function ready.  (Also, Scrivener has a really cool Word Frequency thing under the Project -> Text Statistics tab, which makes it super easy to know exactly what words you use the most.)

Assess adjectives and adverbs.  I’m a descriptor junkie.  My speech is peppered with them, as is my writing (especially these informal blog posts you all suffer through).  In drafting, nearly every sentence has some useless fluff about exactly why this character was squinting, or exactly how shiny that character’s hair is.  Most of these get snipped, so those of you who have read my work and seen how many get left behind have some idea of how many start out. (Yikes!)

Beautify language.  In drafting, I am a huge fan of SVO.  She- kicked- his face.  He- ate- a sandwich.  These sentences- bore- readers.  Readers don’t want to see the same structure over and over and over.  So I take pains to vary sentence structure and length.  I clarify.  I remove unnecessary descriptions and add the parts I missed.  I read prose and dialog out loud and fix up the awkward tongue-twisters that somehow sneak their snickering way into my stories every single time, blast you silly sibilants!

And the newest addition to my final clean-up:

Change all double spaces to single spaces.  I know, I’m very late to the party.  But if there’s anybody else out there who has terror-laced nightmares of Mrs. Hardman in the fourth grade standing over your shoulder as you tentatively tap out your book report on- I kid you not- the typewriter, let’s all just take a deep breath together and move on into the 21st century.  Edit -> Find. Replace. Simple.

Once I’ve completed this cleaning process, I do another quick-as-possible reading.  If something isn’t up to snuff, I go through all the same steps again until it is.  Once everything is to my satisfaction, I start lining up beta readers, with the understanding that I will be going through the whole document again once I get notes back from everyone on all the bits I missed.  Ah, what joy.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of editing, but I understand the appeal.  You get to massage your ugly draft into something beautiful; you can tune the language and deepen the meanings you only hinted at in draft mode; you can work in the foreshadowing and setup for that killer plot twist you came up with three-fifths of the way through the novel; you can seem like an intelligent person who actually knows how to spell.  Editing can be awesome!  So grab that red pen with ruthless delight.  As fantastic as your draft is, you’re about to make it a thousand times better.

Happy writing!

(PS- While editing this post, I nixed over a hundred words in adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive clauses.  Haha, I have a problem.)