The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)

 

The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?

 

How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…

4+

Sculpting That Manuscript

Terry Odell

When we first moved to Colorado, we rented a tiny studio apartment while looking for a permanent home. One evening, our landlords invited us up for a glass of wine and some conversation. She is a sculptor who works primarily in stone. She mentioned it was interesting we were both artists.

Frankly, I’d never considered myself an artist, but we discussed our creative processes. There’s an old saying that in order to carve a block of stone into an elephant, you simply chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. In writing, you keep adding until you get the elephant.

If writing were like sculpting, it would mean being able to change what comes next, but not what came before. Scary. Really scary. When the sculptor asked how I created a book, what my preparation process was, did I outline the plot, or develop the characters, I answered that I knew very little when I first started writing.

She said she worked the same way. She might have a very simple sketch—no more than a line drawing, when she started, and a vague idea of the finished product—but the actual sculpture was dictated by the stone. She starts working and lets the stone show her the way.

That sounds very much like my own writing style. I joked about how my characters were always surprising me, and that the discovery was as much fun as the final product. On that, we were in total agreement.

But imagine if you started writing your book and couldn’t go back to fix things. Once you chip away that piece of marble, it’s gone and you can’t reattach it to the sculpture. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘first draft’ for her. Some artists might make models first, using a different, “less valuable” kind of medium, but she likes to get right to it.

I remember going to a RWA chapter meeting, and as we shared where we were with our writing since the last meeting, one woman said, “I’m on Chapter 30 and have only 5 chapters left to go.” I was flabbergasted. How did she know what was going to go into each chapter, and that much in advance? How did she know her book was going to be 35 chapters long? A recent book ended up going on for about 4 chapters more after I thought I was writing the final chapter. And my editor asked me to expand even more. Glad I wasn’t a sculptor!

But when you do finally reach the end, if you’re like me, your book is full of “extra stuff”. It’s time to play sculptor and chisel away the words, paragraphs, scenes that aren’t helping your book look like the elephant it’s supposed to be. My first attempt at writing a novel came in at 143,000 words. The agents and editors I spoke with said 100,000 was the absolute top limit they’d even look at for a debut author.

Time to cut. You start with the jack hammer, removing any scenes that aren’t moving the story forward (even though they’re probably your favorites). “Does it advance the plot?” becomes your mantra. This is where you’re probably letting everyone know how much research you did. What constellations are visible in the night sky at 10 PM in Salem, Oregon? What’s the story behind Orion? What are the landmarks visible from the passenger seat while driving north on I-25 between Denver and Cripple Creek? What kind of cattle are grazing in the pastureland? How many coal trains chug by each day, carrying how much coal? Ask yourself two questions. 1: Does the reader need to know this. 2: Does the reader need to know this now? That 143,000 word book, Finding Sarah, was published at about 85K.

Finding Sarah

Another question to ask is “Does it come back?” In my book, Deadly Secrets, I had a scene where my heroine comes into her diner and tells the cop hero that she thinks someone’s in her upstairs apartment. The cop tells her to get down behind the counter. There’s mention of a pistol kept near the register. However, we never actually see the gun, other than a few thoughts about who it belongs to, and that almost everyone in the small Colorado town probably has one. Since the gun was never needed and never showed up again … SNIP. “Get behind the counter” is all that’s needed. Readers, especially mystery readers, don’t like a parade of red flags that have no place in the story.

Deadly Secrets

After you’ve tossed those big chunks of stone, you can get out the chisel and look at your narrative. Have you told what you’ve already shown? Trust your readers—they’ll get it. Are you repeating yourself even when you’re showing?

Once you’ve got the story essentials, you can get out the little grinders and brushes to get rid of those sneaky crutch words—the ones that creep into your manuscript when you close your file. (A handy writer’s tool for this is Smart Edit, which will find overused words you never saw coming.) Check for ‘filler’ words. Just, really, well, very, some (and all its variations). When we speak, we use ‘filler words’ to give our brain time to think. Most of the time, they’re not needed on the page and merely slow the read.

Once you’ve got your elephant cleaned and polished, it’s time to get it out there on exhibit, whether to an agent, editor, or beta reader.

What’s your writing style? I’m an ‘edit as I go’ writer, but even then, I have to go back and get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

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Thanks so much to Nancy for inviting me to be a guest at The Kill Zone. I’m thrilled to be here.
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TerryOdellFrom childhood, Terry Odell wanted to “fix” stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn’t always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she’d never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as “Mysteries With Relationships.” She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that’s altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website.

9+

My Rolling Edit Process

800px-Reader48

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I expect to get a few push backs on this post. Many writers use the “draft” process of editing their book after they get it written. They push to get a first draft done before they edit in several more drafts, but for me, I’ve never been able to do this. There’s a compulsive part of my nature that can’t let my own imperfections remain on the page until the end. If I know my book is riddled with my idiosyncrasies, it would haunt me too much, but that’s just me.

I do what I call “rolling edits” because I want to stay close to the action and character motivation at hand. I still get my daily word count in, but I read and reread my daily new material until I have nothing more to edit. In other words, if I write a chapter on one day, I edit it as I continue to move forward until I consider moving on.

Here’s my edit process:

1.) DELETE WITH A VENGEANCE – My first pass is always to delete and tighten each sentence. To help this process, I usually read aloud. Anything I stumble over gets a redo. I have a tendency to use compound sentences, so I make sure not to have dangling participles or long sentences that are hard to follow. I have a two comma rule. Any sentence that needs more than two commas, should probably be broken apart.

2.) LOOK FOR REPETITION (MORE DELETES) – I look for overused words, redundant wording, repeated phrases or “crutch” words that I fall back on too often. This can change from book to book and each author will have their own verbal handicaps.

3.) ADD EMOTIONAL LAYERING – Every scene has an emotional component to it. I push to add more emotion, even if it seems over the top. In fiction, this works because stories are about triggering emotions that the reader can relate to. If the scene is action packed, I’m looking for those delectable word choices to support the action or short viscerally descriptive sentences that will make the thrill palpable to the reader.

4.) REVISE THE DIALOGUE – I read the scene dialogue (without the narratives) to see if I can imagine the characters in my head and hear their voices. If there is humor in the scene, I work to punch it up or improve the timing (usually by deleting). If there is menace in the exchange, I ramp up the threat.

5.) EDIT THE BODY LANGUAGE – I often add body language in each scene as if I am watching a movie, but books aren’t that visual and I can sometimes overdo certain “crutch” reactions, like too many shrugs or nods. Again this is another opportunity to delete usually and it’s worth having a step to look for this.

6.) SPOT CHECK CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Do the characters’ reactions ring true? What if one of them reacted differently, how would that change my scene. I test my character motivation while I am “in” the scene to make sure it feels authentic. As I go through the book and stay close to each character’s story arc, I want the ability to “feel” a different outcome or twist as it is occurring, rather than waiting until the end to realize I like a different turn to happen and have to rewrite major sections.

7.) LAYER IN SETTING – I like to make sure my setting enhances each scene to infuse the action with a setting that is almost like another character. I love writing stories with a strong sense of world building, to make the reader feel as if they can walk the same streets that my characters do, with all their senses.

8.) REMEMBER THE INTIMACY – If my characters have a spark of attraction (that can have it’s own story arc), there is nothing more titillating than mounting intimacy. A glance, a first touch, can be drawn out so the reader feels everything. This can be construed as #3 (adding emotional layering), but for me, a growing romance should carry its own importance. If you can strip out the romance of a story, and the book no longer makes sense, then you have the right balance. This means that the romance is integral. The lovers are “punished” for wanting to be together and they get into more trouble because of it.

ROLLING PROCESS:
As I’ve mentioned, I keep writing my daily word goals, but continue to edit prior scenes (usually a chapter or two previously written) until I’m content to move on. Because I’m old school, I kill a lot of trees by printing out my edit pages and making notes in the margins. Every night I read what I’ve written before I go to bed. My reward is to get my own work done first before I treat myself to reading someone else’s book. The next morning, I make the changes.

By the time I get to the end, my novel is fully edited by me. I usually make one or two more passes through, to read it as a reader might. But most of the major edits are done. When I’m done, I’m done.

I set my daily word count, depending on the contractual due date. The usual range can be 2500-5000 words per day. My advice to other writers, on setting word count goals, is to take into account your priorities and set realistic goals. Even if you can only squeeze in a page a day, that is still progress and you will eventually get done.

DISCUSSION:
1.) How many of you do something similar? Anything you would add to my list?

2.) If you edit in drafts, what tips do you have to make this draft process more effective?

14+

Don’t Muddle Your Message

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie  Renner, editor & author

After your first (or second or third) draft, it’s time to go through your manuscript to cut out any unneeded words that are just cluttering it up.

Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book.

Wordiness gets in the way of a free, easy, natural narrative flow and wrenches your readers out of the fictive dream by subliminally irritating them and making them wonder if there are better ways to use their time.

Here’s an example of minor wordiness that disrupts the flow and slows down the pace. This is a well-disguised passage from my editing of a few years ago. For the “Suggested changes” section, I’ve crossed through all words to be removed and underlined words added, and I changed the font color to red, to imitate Track Changes, which most editors use these days. My notes and comments are in italics.

Genre: crime fiction

Setup: McRae is a homicide detective who’s just arrived to search the home of a murder victim and begin questioning neighbors. He’s speaking to a young man named Rod who lives next door.

Original excerpt:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes involuntarily traveled to the porch lamp by the door.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right hand up and felt a small box of some sort. He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys. He slid the top back and the key was missing from inside.

McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. Rod reached into his jacket pocket and produced a brass key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves,” McRae said, and looked around. “They’re mostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own home, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed.”

If no one saw him leave, they would have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. There was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, but the missing car presented another set of theories.

Suggested changes:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me?  Are you hiding something, Rod?”
Rod’s eyes flicked involuntarily traveledto the porch lamp by the door.
– The tighter wording reflects the quick action.
McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right handreached up and felt a small metal box. of some sort.  He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys .  He  slid the top back. No key. and the key was missing from inside.
– No need to say “his right hand” as it doesn’t matter which hand, and we assume if he’s reaching for something that it’s with his hand.
– No need to say “he saw” as we’re in his point of view, so we know it’s what he’s seeing.
– The rest of the changes in the above paragraph just reduce excess wordiness to reflect his inner thought patterns at that moment.
McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. HeRod reached in his pocket and produced a brass key.
– “out” is redundant. Also, it’s best not to keep repeating names – the new “He” refers to the last male mentioned, so Rod.
McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” HeMcRae said,  looked around.  They’re mMostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night.,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own homeelse, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed give us some clues.”
– Replace “he said” or “she said” with action tags whenever it will work. When “he said” or “she said” is followed by an action, most of the time it’s best to take out the he or she said, as the action indicates who’s speaking.
– No need to add additional speech tags within a short paragraph of someone talking. We know it’s still that person speaking.
– “finding his car might give us some clues” sounds more like a terse, busy detective than the longer original wording, so more in character, especially for a male.
McRae would have to question all the neighbors, because if no one saw him leave, they’dwould have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like itThere was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, and the missing car presented another set of theories.
– In fiction, it’s almost always best to use contractions (we’ve, I’m, she’s, they’d, etc.) in casual dialogue and thoughts.
– The change in the last line to reduce wordiness makes the detective’s inner reasoning sound more natural and casual.

A tighter final version:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes flicked to the porch lamp.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He reached up and felt a small metal box. He pulled it loose and slid the top back. No key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” He looked around. “Mostly retirees, so they should have been home last night. If he was killed somewhere else, finding his car might give us some clues.”

If no one saw him leave, they’d have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like it, and the missing car presented another set of theories.

By cutting back on the wordiness, we’ve not only picked up the pace and made the narrative flow more effortlessly; we’ve also deepened characterization of the detective. The original, more stilted version seemed like the author telling us things, whereas in this final, more relaxed version, the wording keeps us firmly in the point of view and voice of this busy male homicide detective.

So look for all those “little word pile-ups” in your manuscript and see if you can smooth out the sentences by deleting extra words. The end result should be not only faster pacing and more tension, but will be much closer to how that character would actually speak and think.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversDo any of you have any before-and-after examples to share of tightening up your writing? Leave them in the comments below!

Books by Jodie Renner:
~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction  Amazon.com    Amazon.ca    Amazon.co.uk
~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk
~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips  Amazon.com,  Amazon.ca,  Amazon.co.uk
1+

Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away!

by Jodie Renner, editor and author, @JodieRennerEd

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.

Would you say, “Please join Kerry and me” or “Please join Kerry and I”? Do you lay down or lie down for a nap? Should you rein in or reign in your impulses? Did chaos rein or reign in the classroom for the student teacher? The homicide detective arrived at the scene of the grizzly (or is it grisly) murder. How did that effect (or is it affect) you? What was the effect/affect of that show on your kids?

Did the elicit or the illicit lovers have a discrete or discreet rendezvous? Do you insure, ensure, or assure that your seat belt is fastened? Do you hone in or home in on a problem? Do you say “He got his just desserts” or “He got his just deserts”?

Which is correct, “between you and me” or “between you and I”? Do you peak at a mountain peek or vice-versa? And do those juicy bits of gossip peak your curiosity or pique your curiosity? Do you pore over or pour over the details of a document? Did the singer damage her vocal chords or vocal cords? What’s the difference between continual and continuous? allusion and illusion? aural and oral? idyllic and ideal? further and farther? a gourmet and a gourmand? fictional, fictitious, and fictive? jibe and gibe? e.g. and i.e.? bizarre and bazaar?

What are the main differences between American and British spelling? Do Canadians use British or American, spelling, words and expressions? And what the heck is “codswallop”?

And for you fiction writers, what are the word length guidelines for flash fiction, short short stories, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels? What’s the difference between an antagonist and an antihero? What’s a crucible in fiction? How about dramatic irony? How is a metaphor different from a simile? What’s a McGuffin?

Scroll down for the answers to most of these questions, and you can find the rest and many more in my handy, clickable, time-saving Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Style and Usage Tips for Busy Writers and Editors.


This e-resource and my Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips are also available as PDFs for $2.99 (or both for $4.99) through me, at info (at) JodieRenner (dot) com.

Both of these e-resources for writers, editors, proofreaders, and anyone with a writing project on the go have an alphabetical “Key” of clickable groups of letters, like ca  ce  ci  ch  cl  cr  etc. at the beginning, to click on to quickly find words starting with those two letters. Then on each page you click on “Home” or “Back” to get back to the KEY to quickly find another word.

Some excerpts from Quick Clicks: Word Usage, mostly in alphabetical order:

affect; effectaffect (verb) means to influence or have an effect on: “The state of the economy affects businesses.” Effect (noun) means a result: “A cooperative, friendly work environment has a positive effect on staff morale.” A good way to remember the difference is that affect starts with an “a” just like “action” and it’s an action verb; whereas effect is usually a noun. (However, effect can also be used as a verb, meaning to cause, to make happen, produce: “The new president will effect many changes.”)

allusion; illusion – an allusion in an indirect reference to something: “The boss made an allusion to Peter’s earlier career during his evaluation.” An illusion is a misconception, unreal image, or false impression: “Peter had no illusions about how tough it was going to be to meet his employer’s expectations.”

“and me” or “and I”? – Is it “Frank and me worked on that project last week” or “Frank and I worked on that project last week?” Is it “Save seats for Carole and I” or “Save seats for Carole and me”? Here’s a little trick that always works for these cases: Take out the other person’s name and the “and.” If what you’re left with makes sense, that’s the word you need in the original sentence, including the other person. Would you say “me worked on that project”? No, so it’s “Frank and I worked…” Would you say “Save a seat for I” or “Save a seat for me”? You’d use the “and me” there, so add back the other name and it’s “Save seats for Carole and me.”

assure; ensure; insureassure means to give confidence to or put someone’s mind at ease, as in to assure your child you’ll be home soon; ensure means to make certain, as in to ensure you take precautions; insure means to guarantee against loss, as in to insure your car. “Brent assured her that insuring her possessions now would ensure she would be reimbursed for lost or stolen items later.”

aural, oralaural means of or relating to the ears or to hearing; oral means of or relating to the mouth or speaking. Not usually an issue, but apparently when “the pill” was first introduced in the early 1960s as the first oral contraceptive, some women reportedly mistook “oral” for “aural” and stuffed pills into their ears! (Thanks to Garner for this little anecdote – whether it’s actually true or not!)

between you and me is correct – never “between you and I.”

bizarre; bazaarbizarre means strange, startlingly odd; bazaar is a market.

chord; cordchord is reserved for music; cord = string, rope; a measure of wood; ribbed fabric; and vocal cords

continual; continuouscontinual = frequently occurring, intermittent, as in continual complaints; continuous = nonstop, occurring without interruption; unceasing, as in a continuous siren

deserts, desserts – deserts = something someone deserved – “He got his just deserts.” desserts = sweet choices for at the end of a meal. (And then there’s deserts, arid regions with very little rain.)

discreet; discretediscreet = unobtrusive, tactful, circumspect, judicious (They had a discreet meeting in the back corner of a small coffeeshop); discrete = separate, distinct, unconnected (several discrete sections)

e.g., or i.e.,i.e., means “that is”; e.g., means “for the sake of example” or “for example.” i.e., specifies or explains; e.g., simply indicates an example. Note that both have two periods and both are followed by a comma. Chicago style is to use these two-character abbreviations only within parentheses or in notes; in regular prose, use “for example,” or “that is,”

elicit; illicitelicit (v) = to draw out an answer, information, etc. (elicit an apology); illicit (adj) = illegal (an illicit scheme)

em dash (—) Longer than an en dash (–), which is longer than a hyphen (-), used within words. To make the em dash, click on Ctrl+Alt+minus (far top right, on the number pad).

en dash (–) Ctrl + minus sign (far top right, on the number pad). Often used in nonfiction, with a space on either side of the dash. Fiction tends to use the longer em dash (—) instead, with no spaces on either side.

farther; furtherfarther is mainly used for physical distances; further is for time or quantity. “He lives about three miles farther down this road.” But “We need to look into this further.”

fictional; fictitious; fictive – CMOS: fictional means “of, relating to, or characteristic of imagination” (a fictional story); fictitious means “imaginary, counterfeit, false” (a fictitious name); fictive means “possessing the talent for imaginative creation” (a fictive gift)

gibe; jibegibe = a biting insult or taunt: “The angry crowd hurled gibes as the handcuffed suspect passed.” jibe = to fit or coincide – “The conclusion didn’t jibe with the facts.”

gourmet; gourmandgourmet = one who knows and appreciates the fine points of food and drink; gourmand = one who is excessively fond of food and drink, glutton

grisly; grizzly; grizzledgrisly = gruesome, horrible, as in “grisly details”; grizzly = species of large bear, also grayish; grizzled = gray hair or beard.

him and me; he and I – Use “him and me” for object (receiver) of the action: They invited him and me to the reception. Use “he and I” for the subject (doer) of the action: “He and I arrived at 7 p.m.” If in doubt, just use one of the two persons to try it out. Would you say “Him arrived”? or “Me arrived”? No, so it’s “He and I arrived.” Would you say “They invited I”? No, so it’s “They invited him and me.” Same applies to she and I vs. her and me.

home; hone – you hone your skills (hone means to sharpen), but you home in on something, like a homing pigeon comes closer and closer to its target. “hone in” is incorrect and to be avoided.

idyllic; idealidyllic = charming, picturesque; ideal = perfect

implicit; explicitimplicit = not specifically stated but suggested; explicit = deliberately spelled out

lay; lieLay requires a direct object – you lay something down: “Lay your pens down.” Lie does not require or take a direct object – You lie down for a nap. Grandma lies down every afternoon for a rest.

The verb tenses of lay are lay, laid, laid, laying. She laid the baby in the cradle this morning. I laid the book there yesterday. These rumors have been laid to rest.

The verb tenses of lie are lie, lay, lain, lying. She was tired in the afternoon so she lay down on the couch for a while. (past) Grandpa hasn’t yet lain down today.

peak; peek; pique – A peak is an apex, as in a mountain peak; a peek is a quick or illicit glance. (To help remember which is which, when you peek at something, you see it (both have “ee”). To pique is to annoy or arouse, so an article or a bit of gossip piques one’s interest. A fit of pique is an episode of peevishness and wounded vanity.

pore over or pour over?pore = to read or study attentively – “poring over the details” (not “pouring,” unless you’re pouring milk over your cereal!)

rein; reign – A rein (usu. plural) controls a horse; it is the right word in idioms such as “take the reins,” “give free rein,” and, as a verb, “rein in.” A reign is a state of or term of dominion, especially that of a monarch but by extension dominance in some field. This is the right word in idioms such as “reign of terror” and “to reign supreme.”

British expression: What a load of codswallop! = That’s baloney! No way!

FICTION TERMS:

Average lengths of literary works:

These are rough guidelines, and there is often a bit of overlap. Individual publishers’ word-count guidelines may vary.

~ Flash fiction: A story that is less than 500 words long.

~ Short short story: A story that is roughly between 500 and 1000 words long.

~ Short story: A story that’s usually between 1,000 and 7,500 words long.

~ Novelette: A story roughly between 7500 and 17,500 words long. (Some consider the term novelette to be outdated.)

~ Novella: Fiction that falls between a short story and a novel; usually between 17,500 and 50,000 words long.

~ Novel: Fiction that is about 50,000 or more words long.

Antagonist: The main character or force in fiction that tries to stop the protagonist (the hero or heroine of the story) from achieving his/her goal.

Antihero: A protagonist who has no (or few) heroic virtues or qualities (such as being morally good, idealistic, courageous, noble), blurring the line between hero and villain. An antihero has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero, at least at the beginning of the novel.

Metaphor: a word or phrase that means one thing and is used to refer to another thing to emphasize their similar qualities, e.g., He used the metaphor of the family to describe the role of the state. Something that is intended to represent another situation or idea: It is easy to see the crumbling building as a metaphor for the society of the time. (Macmillan dictionary) “He was drowning in paperwork” is a metaphor in which having to deal with a lot of paperwork is being compared to drowning in an ocean of water. (M-W)

Simile: a phrase that describes something by comparing it to something else using the word “like” or “as”, for example, “He eats like a pig.” She’s as fierce as a tiger” is a simile, but “She’s a tiger when she’s angry” is a metaphor.

McGuffin: A common plot device used in films and novels, especially mysteries. Basically used to distract the reader from the real issues. It’s an image or object or place that is referred to occasionally to spark interest, but which ultimately turns out not to be significant or relevant to the plot.

How did you do?  Do you have any other often-confused words or terms to add? And suggestions always welcome for these two e-resources as well!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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First page critique: QUEST FOR HONOR

by Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called QUEST FOR HONOR. My comments follow.

July 2011

Somalia

​Every night, he saw the children. No matter how tired he was, no matter how preoccupied he was from the events of the day, no matter anything, he dreamed. And in his dreams, they came for him. Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing, and sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.

​On this hot night, he woke up screaming. “No! Save them! Save them!” Bolting upright suddenly, the bedclothes fell away from him, drenched with his sweat. He was panting. The shadow had gotten close to him, as the children milled around, and he felt its cold tendrils snaking around him, drawing him closer…

There was a knock at the door, then a muffled voice.

“Yusuf! Are you all right?”

He didn’t answer, and the door edged open. The face that peered in was that of Amir, his most trusted lieutenant. Did the man never sleep? “Are you ill, Yusuf? May I get you anything?”

​In his bed, the man shook his head, banishing the last wisps of the faces, knowing they would be back, perhaps as soon as he nodded off again. “Thank you, Amir, but I am fine. A bad dream, that is all.”

​“Shall I prepare some hot tea? It often helps me sleep.”

​Yusuf started to object, but said, “That would be good. Please, bring it to the library, and join me.”

He rose and pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light. The lone overhead bulb sputtered but stayed on. At least the electricity was running, he thought. Otherwise it would be candles and lanterns, as it was some nights. How could this truly be part of the land of Allah’s people if it could not consistently provide even the bare necessities? Ah, but what necessities are we thinking of, Yusuf reminded himself. The ones you enjoyed back in America, at university? Or the ones the true believers scraped and scavenged for every day, here in the barren countryside, the crowded cities, that made up the lands of the Prophet, blessings be upon him?

I’m not a big fan of opening a book with a dream, but this does set the stage for drama. The writer has a good command of storytelling. I have a suspicion that this is going to be an emotionally charged tale. There’s not much I find to critique here. Some unneeded use of adverbs and extra wording. A bit of cleanup can cure that. But overall, a good start. Here are a few suggested line edits.

Avoid passive voice. Change “Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication…” to “Pain and supplication filled their eyes…” Change “…and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing…” to “a shadow, dark and menacing, loomed behind them…”

Avoid run-on sentences. “Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing, and sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.” to “Pain and supplication filled their eyes, and a shadow, dark and menacing, loomed behind them. Sometimes he heard its wicked laughter, smelled its fetid breath.”

Avoid adverbs and unneeded words. For example: “Bolting upright suddenly, the his bedclothes fell away from him…”

Avoid confusion. “Did the man never sleep?” is Yusuf’s interior thought yet the reader might feel it is Amir who thinks it. Place it in italics. Then start a new paragraph with “Are you ill, Yusuf?”

Avoid unneeded words. Change “In his bed, the man shook his…” to “Yusuf shook his head…” We already know he is in bed.

Avoid simultaneous actions that are not simultaneous. Change “He rose and pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light.” to “He rose, pulled on a dry robe, and switched on the light.”

I think this is a good first draft. A little editing would make it tight and crisp. I would definitely keep reading. Thanks to the author for submitting this first-page sample. Good luck.

How about you guys? Would you turn to page 2 or move on?

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When is “Dark” too dark?

Nancy J. Cohen

One of the words I’ve been repeating in my works lately has been “dark”. You know, the man swung his dark gaze her way. He wore a dark suit. He had his dark hair brushed back over a wide forehead. Shadows darkened in a corner as he gave her a dark scowl.

Ouch.

This can be considered lazy writing, except I hadn’t even been aware of this fault until I ran one of the self-edit programs described in my personal blog at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. I embarked on a search and find mission to replace as many of these weak terms as possible.

Let’s start with clothes. Face it, men wear dark suits. To get a better idea of colors, I accessed this website: http://lawyerist.com/suit-colors-for-the-clueless/. Ah, now it became clear which colors are popular for men and suited to business. My descriptions of dark suits changed to black, charcoal, slate or navy. That’s a lot better than “dark”, isn’t it?

charcoal blazer

If you want to get even more particular, go online to a department store site like Macys.com and put in the search feature “suits, “blazers”, or “sportcoats” and you’ll get a wide variety of colors.

navy blazer

What about the character who has dark hair? Is it black or dark brown? Check this reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_hair_color. Instead of black hair, give your character raven, ebony, or onyx hair. Varying the descriptions adds spice to your story.

Jen4

Also watch out for redundancies like dark shadows & dark scowl. Both of these work well without the “dark” element.

Despite its ambiguity, this word is popular for movies. Witness Batman’s The Dark Knight; Thor: The Dark World; and Star Trek into Darkness.

The filmmakers can get away with it, but as a writer, you cannot. What other ambiguous words like this might you want to change?

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Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

blade-cover4-smallI’m pleased to welcome back to TKZ my guest, Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer. I was fortunate to have Jodie edit my upcoming thriller, THE BLADE (co-written with Lynn Sholes), scheduled for release February 20. Enjoy Jodie’s terrific advice on creating the essential thriller hero.

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by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

P1070629_CloseupThe hero or heroine of a suspense-thriller, like the protagonist of any popular bestseller, has to be impassioned, unique, and likeable enough for the reader to want to latch on and follow them through their journey, worrying about them and cheering them on through their challenges. So it’s important to take the time to create a charismatic, passionate, complex, sympathetic main character, so readers connect with him or her immediately.

Heroes in novels and movies haven’t really changed a lot over the centuries since the days of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, but they continue to have universal appeal because through them, readers can vicariously participate in exciting adventures and confront and defeat evil to win the day and restore justice. Makes for a very entertaining, satisfying read. Get the adrenaline flowing with worry and fear, then triumph over adversity together, just in the nick of time!

Like the heroes of tales of long ago and, more recently, western and action-adventure stories and movies, the hero of a thriller is usually larger than life, and because of his cleverness, determination and special skills, can accomplish feats most of us cannot, including finding and crushing the bad guys before they get him! But unless you’re writing a James Bond-type story, don’t make your hero perfect or too cocky! Give them some inner conflict, weak spots or insecurities to keep readers worrying about them.

What’s the basic recipe for a suspense hero or heroine that sells books? I’d say the ideal hero is clever, resourceful, charismatic, likeable, tenacious, and courageous. What else? The classic hero may be (and often is) a rebel who defies society’s rules, but he has inner integrity and a personal code of honor, and will risk his life for a worthy cause. Readers want to cheer him on to defeat evil, so they can get a sense of satisfaction and empowerment that maybe they, too, could stop the bad guys, survive and help innocent victims, and restore harmony to their scary world.

From my various reading of craft-of-fiction books and bestselling thrillers and my own editing of thrillers and other suspense fiction, I’ve come up with this list of desired qualities for the hero or heroine of a page-turning suspenseful mystery, romantic suspense, or thriller novel.

Heroes and heroines of bestselling thrillers need most of these attributes:

~ Clever. They need to be smart enough to figure out the clues and outsmart the villain. Readers don’t want to feel they’re smarter than the lead character. They don’t want to say, “Oh, come on! Figure it out!”

~ Resourceful. Think MacGyver, Katniss of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, or Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive. The hero needs to be able to use ingenuity and whatever’s at his disposal to get out of any jams he finds himself in and also to find and defeat the bad guy(s).

~ Experienced. They’ve done things and been places. They’ve had a variety of tough life experiences that have helped them grow. They’ve “lived” and are stronger and more resilient for it. They’re definitely not naïve.

~ Determined. Your hero or heroine needs to be tenacious and resilient. They keep going. They don’t cave under pressure or adversity. They have a goal and stick to it, despite personal discomforts like fatigue, hunger, injuries, and threats.

~ Courageous. Bravery is essential, as readers want to look up to him/her. Any heroes who are tentative or fearful early on should soon find courage they didn’t know they had. The challenges and dangers they face force them to be stronger, creating growth and an interesting character arc for them.

~ Physically fit. Your heroine or hero needs to be up to the physical challenges facing her/him. It’s more believable if they jog or work out regularly, like Joe Pike running uphill carrying a 40-pound backpack. Don’t lose reader credibility by making your character perform feats you haven’t built into their makeup, abilities you can’t justify by what we know about them so far.

~ Skilled. To defeat those clever, skilled villains, they almost always have some special skills and talents to draw on when the going gets rough. For example, Katniss in Hunger Games is a master archer and knows how to track and survive in the woods, Jack Reacher has his army police training and size to draw on, and Joe Pike has multiple talents, including stealth.

~ Charismatic. Attractive in some way. Fascinating, appealing, and enigmatic. Maybe even sexy. People are drawn to him or her.

~ Confident but not overly cocky. Stay away from arrogant, unless you’re going for less-than-realistic caricatures like James Bond.

~ Passionate, but not overly emotional. Often calm under fire, steadfast. Usually don’t break under pressure. Often intense about what they feel is right and wrong, but “the strong, silent type” is common among current popular thrillers – “a man of few words,” like Joe Pike or Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch.

~ Unique, unpredictable. They have a special world view, and a distinctive background and attitude that sets them apart from others. They’ll often act in surprising ways, which keeps their adversaries off-balance and the readers on edge.

~ Complex. Imperfect, with some inner conflict. Guard against having a perfect or invincible hero or heroine. Make them human, with some self-doubt and fear, so readers worry more about the nasty villains defeating them and get more emotionally invested in their story.

~ Wounded. Had a tough background that toughened them up somewhat. But they’re still vulnerable because of it. Lucy Kincaid, from Allison Brennan’s romantic thriller series, was brutally attacked and nearly killed by a rapist, but she’s determined to overcome the emotional scars and become an FBI agent; Joe Pike was repeatedly beaten by an abusive father; Elvis Cole was abandoned by his mother; Jack Reacher was an army brat who was constantly in fights and lost his parents and brother. How these characters deal with their emotional and physical wounds touches the reader’s heart and draws us in.

~ Idealistic, Honorable, Self-sacrificing. The thriller hero or heroine may lie, cheat, steal, even kill, but they do it for the greater good, to stop threats and defeat evil. While never a pious goody-goody, the thriller hero is prepared to do whatever it takes to help innocent people who are threatened, protect an individual or family being terrorized, or rescue a child who’s been kidnapped. Having a sense of honor or being self-sacrificing is often what separates a flawed hero from a villain. For example, Rick in Casablanca is a cad-type antihero who ultimately sacrifices his own personal needs/wants/desires for the greater good and turns into a hero at the end. Similarly with Walt, the gruff, racist Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino.

~ Independent. Often a loner. Might even be an outlaw. Your hero works well – even best –alone, especially if an undercover agent or on a mission or assignment. Heroes often find themselves in situations where they can’t really depend on others – they need to solve the problems through their own resourcefulness, physical effort, and courage. As a result, and because of their inner makeup, heroes often make their own rules. Some examples of this are Robin Hood, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jack Reacher, and Joe Pike.

~ Usually likeable. But not always. Exceptions are those really rough, gruff antiheroes who redeem themselves somehow at the end, like Rick in Casablanca, Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry, or Walt Kowalsky, the crotchety old Clint Eastwood character in the movie Gran Torino.

Also, it’s a good idea to give your hero or heroine:

~ An Achilles heel. A weakness or phobia. Maybe they’re afraid of heights or are claustrophobic. Maybe they’re afraid of snakes, like Indiana Jones. And Superman had to stay away from kryptonite. Give your hero a phobia or weakness, then of course put them in a scene where they’ll have to face their fears and overcome them!

~ A soft spot. Show a softer, more caring side to your tough hero now and then, to make him more human and appealing. Maybe he cares about the underdog, a minor character, an animal, or a child or baby.

Who are some of your favorite thriller heroes and heroines of novels, films or TV? What makes them so likeable? What special talents or attributes do they possess? Any you really don’t like? Why not?

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

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Writing Tense Action Scenes

blade-cover4-smallI’m pleased to welcome to TKZ my guest, Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer. Jodie is currently editing my next thriller THE BLADE (co-written with Lynn Sholes), soon to be released as an indie published e-book. Not only is she doing a great job of finding all our line and copy edit stumbles, but she’s got a keen knack for suggesting just the right content tweaks to help tighten the story. I asked Jodie to put together some thoughts and tips for writing action scenes. Here’s her terrific post. Enjoy!
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Thanks, Joe! Great to be here.

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

P1070629_Closeup

I specialize in editing thrillers, and I sometimes get asked how editing suspense fiction is different from editing other genres. That’s a huge topic, too long for one blog post, and would include specific approaches to various elements like premise, plot, characterization, pacing, word choice, and writing style.

For this post, I’ll just talk about writing effective action scenes, which can appear in many other genres besides thrillers.

When your characters are running for their lives, or your hero is in a race against time to save innocent lives, it’s time to write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Characters on the run don’t have time to admire the scenery or décor, start musing about a moment in the past, or have great long thoughts or discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival – theirs and/or someone else’s.

Of course, if the details of the setting are significant or would somehow help or hinder your protagonist, then definitely include them. Basically, put yourself in the head and body of your character under stress, fighting for her life, and see/hear/smell/feel what she does, then react as she reacts.

SOME QUICK TIPS FOR WRITING STRONG ACTION SCENES

~ Show, don’t tell (of course!). Play the scene in real time, with actions, reactions, and dialogue.

~ Use deep point of view. Stay in the POV character’s head and body.

~ Avoid info dumps. Keep the readers right there in the scene with the characters. Don’t intrude as the author to clarify anything. If details need explaining, fit that in somehow before the tense scene starts.

~ Evoke the senses. Show your viewpoint character’s vivid sensory impressions, so the reader sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels what he does.

~ Amp up the imagery. Use the most concrete, suggestive nouns and the most powerful, evocative verbs you can find.

~ Show inner reactions. Reveal your POV character’s emotions, brief thoughts, and physical reactions, starting with their visceral responses.

~ Use tight, staccato thinking. Avoid long, involved thought processes, which deflate tension and slow things down.

~ Describe physical actions succinctly, for fast pacing and high tension. Don’t get into distracting minor details about which hand or finger or foot and exactly how high or low, unless it’s important for some reason.

~ Show other characters’ threats and reactions through their words, tone of voice, actions, body language, and facial expressions.

~ Use rapid-fire dialogue. Avoid complete, correct, thoughtful sentences and lengthy discussions among characters.

~ Write tight. Cut out any little unneeded words that are cluttering up sentences and slowing down the pace.

~ Use short sentences and paragraphs, for a tense, breathless, staccato effect. – Writers and readers – do you have any tips to add to this list?

SOME BEFORE-AND-AFTER EXAMPLES OF EFFECTIVE ACTION SCENES

(Well-disguised from my editing. The “after” examples are of course only one possibility among many.)

Before:

Fortunately for Jennifer, the attacker was far enough away that when he attempted to grab her she sidestepped him and delivered a sharp kick to the outside of his left knee. He grunted and fell back against the stack of wooden crates. He then got up clumsily, rubbing his arm, showing his anger at how easily Jennifer had dodged and hit him.

After:

The attacker lunged at Jennifer. She dodged to the side and delivered a sharp kick to his knee. He grunted and fell against the stack of wooden crates. He scrambled up, rubbing his arm, eyes full of hate.

Before:

His facial expression changed from one showing loathing to one communicating unrestrained joy. Jennifer realized at that moment that she had made a fatal mistake. She looked to her right. The door leading out of the warehouse was about fifty feet from where she was standing.

After:

His expression changed from loathing to amusement. Jennifer knew she had made a fatal mistake. She searched for the exit door. It was to her right, about fifty feet away.

Before:

An inline skater came careening around the corner and skated fast towards them, shouting loudly. Josh shot a look back at Amy as he grabbed her arm and pulled her bodily to the edge of the street out of the path of the oncoming skater.

After:

An inline skater came careening around the corner and barreled towards them, yelling. Josh grabbed Amy’s arm and yanked her out of the way.

Writers – feel free to add a before and after example of your own in the comments!

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversFor more on this topic and on writing tighter, see Jodie’s book, Fire up Your Fiction.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Is Cutting More Important than Adding?

Today I have a guest post from Sechin Tower, author of Mad Science Institute (MSI), a highly unusual yet thoroughly entertaining young adult suspense novel. I met Sechin on Twitter. Once I saw that he was a game developer, I asked for his help on my next proposal, a near future YA techno thriller that involves gaming and he helped me fine tune my game world. I also downloaded his book and found a real gem. Since he’s a teacher, he incorporates science into the plot to make learning fun for young readers. I absolutely fell in love with his YA voice, his characters and his humor. I’m looking forward to his next book. Below is a summary of Mad Science Institute.

Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck is a girl genius with a knack for making robots-and for making robots explode. After her talents earn her admission into a secretive university institute, she is swiftly drawn into a conspiracy more than a century in the making. Soap is pitted against murderous thugs, experimental weaponry, lizard monsters, and a nefarious doomsday device that can bring civilization to a sudden and very messy end.

Welcome, Sechin!

I had a professor who insisted that the best way to write a two-page paper was to write a 10 page paper, throw it all away, and then hand in pages 11 and 12. When I tell the same thing to my students, they don’t buy it. I can’t blame them: I didn’t really buy it either, not until I started writing novels.

My professor’s point was that not all pages are created equal. Of course it takes more effort to write 10 or 12 bad pages than two bad pages, and maybe even more than two mediocre pages. But good pages require time and effort, as well as research, experimentation, structuring, restructuring, and a nearly endless amount of general fussing. At the very least, good pages require two steps: adding and cutting.

I teach two discrete groups of students and I’ve found that each needs this advice for different reasons. One of my student groups consists of the crème-de-la-crème of our school’s scholars, students who take the most challenging courses, maintain the highest GPAs, and participate in every extracurricular activity that might sparkle on their college applications. My other group consists of at-risk kids in an alternative school program. Many of these students are extremely intelligent, but for a dizzying array of reasons none of them has had much success in school.

The advanced students always want to build up their writing until it overflows. They do the research, they know the issues, they have the facts, and they want to pile it all in without any thought to purpose or readability. The bigger the better: if the assignment calls for two pages, then they assume 10 ought to get a better grade. If they run out of things to say, they resort to inflated words and ponderous sentences. Their writing often becomes a cluttered, colorless hallway that never leads anywhere.

My alternative high-schoolers, on the other hand, bring a great deal of passion about anything they see as relevant to their lives. They are lively, colorful, and outspoken, but even on their favorite topics their writing is terse. For them, it’s about getting to the point. Why wade through the muck of evidence and logic when you can gallop right to the exciting conclusion? Why bother explaining anything if you feel like you already understand it?

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I built a composite of these two groups when I wrote Mad Science Institute. I started by combining all the drive and technical know-how of the advanced students with the vitality and quirkiness of the alternative school kids. I crammed a lot into each character and just as much into the plot and setting, but in the cutting phase I eliminated everything that failed to accelerate the story or develop the characters. It meant cutting some perfectly good ideas, but that was okay: true to the mad science theme, I knew I could stitch them together and give them a new life whenever I was ready. Right then, all that mattered was pruning back and boiling down until the book became balanced and lean.

Being a teacher helped me write a better novel, and writing a novel helped me become a better teacher. I’m not trying to teach my students to become novelists—I wouldn’t push it on them any more than a P.E. teacher would urge all of his students to aim for NFL careers—but what works for crafting a novel applies to essays, letters, and other forms of writing as well. By the end of each year, I’m gratified to see that those students who tended to add too much have learned to accomplish more with fewer words, and the ones who want to start too small learn that they need to build up before they can trim down.

Despite what some students claim, the art of writing is nothing that can be mastered with a mere 16 or 17 years of practice. If I’m any better at it than a student, it isn’t because of what I’ve written but because of what I’ve un-written. Deleting the thousands of pages of rough drafts and practice novels was the only way I could learn what should stay and what just gets in the way, and by the time my students delete that many pages they’ll be better writers than I am.

It seems to me that what you cut is as important as what you add, but maybe that’s just my process. I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.

How about it, TKZers? Are you more of a cutter or adder?

Sechin’s website & Twitter

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