How Much Editing Is Enough?

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You’ve had a request for your complete manuscript from an agent or editor. Suddenly your mouth goes dry. Your knees are shaky. Is your manuscript REALLY ready for prime time?

OR

Let’s say you’re a DIY person, and you publish yourself through Amazon or Smashwords, or some other self publishing organ. Will your readers toss your book in disgust because it’s so amateurishly edited?

OR

Maybe you’re hyper-anal or compulsive, and you don’t know when to stop the editing process. When, exactly, is enough enough?

To my mind there’s no “exactly” possible; it’s my contention that there’s never been a perfect novel or non-fiction book written. Still, don’t use that as an excuse to take a lazy approach to editing.

Some newbie writers don’t much care for the editing process; it’s not where the creative process is, they will tell you. And some high-dollar writers feel this way, too. But editing can be very creative, very enjoyable. Here are some hints at where good editing lies:

  • Spelling – you may not be a good speller, but at least some of your readers, or editors/agents will be. Use your dictionary. Plain and simple.
  • Punctuation – Too many commas, too few punctuation marks otherwise. It’s normal to insert commas wherever your thought process stops and starts, but will the reader need them, or will they get in the way? Make sure you punctuate so that your written intent is clear to the reader. You don’t want him or her to have to keep re-reading a passage to gain its meaning. Also, word processing software isn’t always of help with punctuation. If you leave a period out or fail to close quotes, for instance, your software may not catch it. And these things will be glaring to the reader.

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Okay, those are the easy ones. Now here’s where editing can get really creative. The central thing to remember here is: Will your reader enjoy reading your book, essay, or short story? Remember, you’re writing for your reader, not you. So when you have a good draft – or you think you’ve edited enough, set the manuscript aside until you can look at it as a reader, not its author. Then consider these things:

  • Have you varied your sentence structure? Don’t keep  writing long, complicated sentences just because you’re confident that you can punctuate them properly. Or only write pages and pages of eight word sentences.
  • Are dialogue tags, i.e., the “he said” “she said” tags doing their job in making clear who is speaking? Don’t get overly creative with these. Sometimes you can make these perform multiple purposes, but strive to keep the reader’s attention on what’s between the quote marks (if you use them).
  • Are you sure of what you’re trying to say in your piece, whether book-length or flash fiction? If not, take a break and write down what the theme of your piece is meant to be. Summarize your manuscript in a single paragraph. Then you’ll more nearly know how the manuscript should be structured,whether or not it will work for the reader.
  • Is your voice consistent? Or after reading chapter 1 and chapter 12, do they seem to have been written by different people?
  • Does your narrative appeal to the senses? All of them? But if it’s an abstract, informational essay, for instance, you may not want to heavy up on the piece’s atmosphere.
  • Do your scenes “pop” with energy, emotion, intimacy? Are your characters vividly portrayed in ways in which the reader can know them and perhaps identify with them?
  • Does your writing alternate action and energy with a release of such tension?
  • Let’s say your manuscript is 300 pages in length.  You’ve worked hard on the first 30 pages, because you want to hook your reader. Read the piece’s middle three chapters. Are these three as enthralling as those first 30 pages? Quite often, even with seasoned writers, a long manuscript’s middle section drags, as if it’s there for nothing more than filler. I call such ho-hum middle sections the Kansas and Iowa of a manuscript, i.e., the energy of the work has stalled here. (Apologies to Midwesterners)

Okay. There are other things to consider, too, but these may be unique to your manuscript. If you have given the above considerations your best shot, your editing is probably sufficient. HOWEVER: any publisher, agent, or editor may want to change your manuscript, to lop out portions, or to heavy up on others. GIVE THESE CAREFUL CONSIDERATION. More than likely, their suggestions will improve your manuscript in some way. But if you feel very strongly about your manuscript segments or its totality, defend your point of view. The person requesting changes may very well back down in the face of a good argument.

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

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Facts Don’t Make A Fiction

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It’s abnormal and absolutely strange for me not to be reading a book a week – or nearly so. The knee – my new metal one – is the duly appointed culprit in this “good habit breakdown.” If you’ve never had a modern knee replacement and gone through the discomfort of physical therapy, you don’t know pain a’tall.

But not to worry; I am slowly finding the time to read and the ability to concentrate on a book, and so I’m now wrapped up in a historical novel concerning one of the U.S.’s most famous personalities. Without naming names – I’ll do that at a later date – I can say that the author is, in my estimation, one of the better historical researchers, at least where research meets fictionalized history.

As much as I admire this writer and respect his work, this book is boring. Why, you ask? Because there’s too much attention to minor details. But wait! you exclaim. Minor details are important. They’re inactive characters that give a richer feel for the historical era and those who live within the era.

True, and I can cite two reasons this objection holds water, even as I object.

It’s a question of context and proportion. If the central character is a world famous whittler, then there’s no need to drum up big, Hollywood-esque scenes. In that case, your literary camera can quite rightly zoom in on the most minor details, first to give a microscopic view of the whittler’s rather staid life. And second, done properly, that sort of scene will make almost anything the whittler does seem high drama.

If your protagonist is a wildly active person, a gangster, perhaps, scenes and narrative passages concerning this guy should virtually take care of themselves by depicting the antics as simply themselves, but perhaps a shade larger than life. In a scene charged by such character actions, the minutiae details should settle into the background the way a brick wall would in an Eastern U.S., gentrified community.

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And so you get the idea. It’s perfectly fine in historical novels to have strategic “information dumps”that give the reader a better feel for the era, a sense of the main character’s connection to the era, and the facts that would be awkward to display in a scenic way. Overdoing historical data in such novels is largely a by-product of research: You’ve ferreted out all this neat info, and it’d be a shame not to plug it in somewhere.

Not!

As above, remember: it’s a question of context and proportion.

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Using Italics For Character Thoughts – – A Good Idea?

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This may seem ho-hum during a week of new year’s resolutions, bowl games, and the first nasty winter weather, but Nancy, a writer friend brought me a writer’s dilemma yesterday. We writers are beginning to see passages in books and stories in which a character’s inner thoughts are italicized. How, Nancy asked, do we decide when to use this device? Further, do we need to use it at all?

Okay, bottom line: there is no convention advising when to use this device. And there’s nothing requiring it at all. So if you choose not to make use of italics, it’s okay. Just make sure your reader can follow your intent in your writing.

If you’re confused at this point, let me give an example or two:

She returned to her tanning. His papa. Poor little fellow. She’d intended for some months to have a talk with the boy, name his real father, but she kept changing her mind. Of course, if she were to carry that out, Abraham would find out within the day and, in his current mental state, he’d probably kill her. I don’t care. I don’t care if I die. She hated the Free Mountain Tribe. She hated Freedomland. But it was Citadel that did this to me. Jakob did it. Citadel and Jakob, they’d written her off, and she hated that place and those people, too. The rumors from her former homeland had her deceased. Jakob knows better, he lied about everything, about me. He left me, even as I was carrying his child.

This is from a new novel I’m just now completing, and I’ve chosen to use italics in a narrative passage. Inner thoughts, sown within the narrator’s passage. Makes it more clear, doesn’t it? And it makes these thoughts stand out to the reader.

 

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But let’s complicate things, as in the next passage:

Abraham had been a good provider, she had to admit that. So many of her woman friends in the tribe were gaunt, diseased, covered with skin eruptions, their hair falling out, their mates indolent, inept, or unlucky. Then, when these women were too sick to work, the men would banish them to the forest, where they’d starve and die, and the men would find younger, healthier women to replace the old. Women were expendable in Freedomland; that was the bottom line. And, oh, how Hagar wished to be eminently expendable, to be sent away from the tribe, to die in the woods. She didn’t care if some brown slave or a woman captured from Citadel took her place. Freedom. Death’s the only freedom here for a woman. Maybe, she considered, it wasn’t so bad in Citadel after all. She could come and go as she pleased, within reason, of course. And she’d never had to fear for her safety when she’d had her spats with Jakob. Not like the increasingly violent ones with Abraham.

Why didn’t I use italics on the first sentence? Because a tag, similar to a dialogue tag, ended the sentence: “…she had to admit that.”

And in a later sentence: “Maybe, she considered, it wasn’t so bad in Citadel after all.” I used the tag, “she considered,” there. This and the above example make these paraphrasing of the character’s inner thoughts part of the narrator’s voice.

This can also be used in scene, in which the character is speaking, and her thoughts are interrupted by something she’s thinking, as in this passage:

 

So she simply said, “I decided to live here. “ A pause. “At least for a while longer.”

Oh, Fate. I shouldn’t have said that. Now he’ll want to go away for sure, and he’ll tell Abraham I had urged it.

 

Again, there’s no established convention for this – and there’s nothing requiring italics in such cases at all. this is simply the way I choose to do it. But there’s one more thought on the subject:

Since italics highlight a character’s thoughts in both  narrative and scene, why not orchestrate your writing so that you use the italics to highlight the most emotionally charged thoughts of the character?

 

If anyone has further thoughts on this use of italics, let’s talk about it here.

 
Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

Channeling The Past

I've just finished writing a scene for my medieval historical novel – a scene I'd been dreading. It has to do with a famed debate between two philosopher/thinkers, and nothing much had been written about the debate in history's annals.

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image via pen.org

 

This has come up before – whether in memoir or in a full-tilt novel such as this – and I found I had to resort to what's worked in the past. Rather than try to devise the debate scene's dialogue analytically, based on hours of probably unrewarding research, I allowed my mind to go blank and, well, I just wrote. The validity in this is that the specifics of this ancient debate are said to be stored in the collective unconscious Jung identified and, while I might not get to the details of the debate by working in this manner, I can get to the sense of it – with what few clues I gain from history as a catalyst.

How do I know that I'm not fooling myself? You can never be sure, but the more comfortable I am with what I've written as I go through subsequent edits, the more sure I am that the scene works, and supplements the clues that history gave me.

 

Cliches and Biases in Nonfiction and Fiction

I've just finished reading the August 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, and as usual, I pay special attention to the fiction. In this issue, too, there's a memoir, and in these two pieces I see a difference in style based, I suspect, on reader expectation.

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The memoir, "Summer People," by Justin Kaplan, involves the author's reflections of Russian emigires settled into the northeast U.S., along the Atlantic coast. His story, about the way class distinctions remained for these emigires, despite their new egalitarian environment, is told totally in narrative. True, the depiction of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter scrubbing floors, works perfectly in narrative as an example of the incongruencies of these Russian transplants' new life in the U.S.

But a rather snobbish reaction by some of these people to motorcycles roaring through the nearby woods, compelled the author to put the segment in quotes, a segment that might have worked even better as a scene with proper dialogue.

This is, I think, a bias of nonfiction – that the distancing effect of narrative is the proper conveyance for such reflections, particularly memoir.

Compare that, then, to Bonnie Nadzam's short story, "The Losing End," which, after a few paragraphs of narrative, drops into the moment-by-moment effect of scenic dialogue until near the end. Nazdam's story is part of a novel being written, so it's somewhat unfair to critique it by itself, but the main character, Lamb, acts oddly toward a trollop-girl. Admittedly, the style here is of the page-turner sort, waiting paragraph after paragraph to understand Lamb.

We do understand him by story's end, by inference, but I always wonder what I've missed in such inferences. A couple of "drop-backs" into narrative during this poignant scenic story might've dispelled that concern. But the scene is the staple of modern story, as it attempts to mime cinema.

In the story's case, as well as the memoir, we expect certain cliched styles, and both authors were astute enough to give us that. 

A Deeper Look at Love and Forebodings

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert – Part 2

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A new translation by Lydia Davis

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First the translation: Lydia Davis spent a lot of time on the project; she gives us copious notes on the significance of what Flaubert has written in the way of French culture during the post-Napoleonic era, of technology, particularly medical science, and, in passing, Flaubert’s view, and possibly that of a large portion of educated France of the time, on the Catholic faith.

So. To Flaubert’s writing. Today we would say he knew how to pace a character-driven novel. He marries Charles to Emma quickly, but only after we’re allowed to view them as individuals, unaffected yet by the mirrors of marriage. Flaubert takes us into his characters, particularly Emma, permitting us peeks at their innermost thoughts, which are often sharply contrasted by their outer acts. This allows the un-loving couple to resonate more strongly than his depiction of other, background characters.

From the start, Flaubert’s narration compels. He takes us into his scenes as might a modern writer, schooled to mimic the moviemaker’s cameraman. He appeals to every sense with vividness and sensuality, leaving this reader with images that will probably remain forever.

His dialogue is probably his least well done aspect – at least by modern day standards of technique. While he gives us witty, tightly drawn dialogue in places, Flaubert hasn’t removed himself well enough from the Romantics to make this characters’ speech reflective of the story’s often hard-bitten tone.

Flaubert may have been an emotional man; as he moves closer to Emma’s death, and particularly afterward, narrative, characterization and dialogue seem a tad maudlin. But then this is France, and it is the nineteenth century. However, this lengthy book in no way drags.

Flaubert's main characters come to life in Madame Bovary in ways we see today in both cinema and the best literature, and as such, his characterizations remain as yet another standard for writers to try to best.

 

My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars